Last fall President Bush declared the slaughter here in Darfur to be genocide, and then looked away. One reason for his paralysis is apparently the fear that Darfur may be another black hole of murder and mutilation, a hopeless quagmire to suck in well-meaning Americans – another Somalia or Iraq.
We’re again making the same mistake we’ve made in past genocides: as in the slaughter of Armenians, Jews, Cambodians, Rwandans and Bosnians, we see no perfect solutions, so we end up doing very little. Because we could not change Nazi policies, we did not bother to bomb rail lines leading to death camps; today, because we have little leverage over Sudan, we do not impose a no-fly zone to stop the strafing of civilians or even bother to speak out forcefully.
Yet this town of Labado underscores that Darfur is not hopeless, that even the very modest actions that the international community has taken so far have saved vast numbers of lives.
A desert town that used to hold about 25,000 people, Labado was attacked in December by the Sudanese military and the militia known as the janjaweed. For several days, the army burned huts, looted shops, killed men and raped women.
For months, Labado was completely deserted and appeared destined to become a ghost town. But then African Union forces, soldiers from across Africa who have been dispatched to stop the slaughter, set up a small security outpost of 50 troops here. Almost immediately, refugees began returning to Labado, followed by international aid groups.
Today there are perhaps 5,000 people living in the town again, building new thatch roofs over their scorched mud huts. The revival of Labado underscores how little it takes to make a huge difference on the ground. If Western governments help the African Union establish security, if we lean hard on both the government and the rebels to reach a peace agreement, then by the end of this year Darfur might see peace breaking out.
For now, Labado is only an oasis, and when the people here step out of the town they risk being murdered or raped by the janjaweed militia.
Refugees fleeing to Kalma from a village called Saleya described how nine boys were seized by the janjaweed, stripped naked and tied up, their noses and ears cut off and their eyes gouged out. They were then shot dead and left near a public well. Nearby villagers got the message and fled.
Aid workers report that in another village, the janjaweed recently castrated a 10-year-old boy, apparently to terrorize local people and drive them away. The boy survived and is being treated.
Yet along with atrocities, there are hopeful signs. While Mr. Bush should do more, he has forthrightly called the killings genocide and heaped aid on Darfur, probably saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
Indeed, aid shipments have brought malnutrition rates in much of Darfur below those of other places in Sudan, partly because donor governments have “borrowed” aid from other regions. So children are going hungry in southern and eastern Sudan as a consequence of Darfur.
If Mr. Bush led a determined effort to save Darfur, there would be real hope for peace here – plus, the international image of the U.S. would improve. And a new Zogby poll commissioned by the International Crisis Group found that Americans by margins of six to one favor bolder action in Darfur, such as a no-fly zone.
But Mr. Bush is covering his eyes. Last year administration figures like Colin Powell and John Danforth led the response to Darfur, but now neither Condoleezza Rice nor the White House seems much interested.
Darfur will never be a Somalia or Iraq, because nobody is talking about sending in American combat troops. But simply an ounce of top-level attention to Darfur would go a long way to save lives.
In 1999, Madeleine Albright traveled to Sierra Leone and met child amputees there, wrenching the hearts of American television viewers and making that crisis a priority in a way that eventually helped resolve it. Ms. Rice could do the same for Darfur if she would only bother to go.
Mr. Bush values a frozen embryo. But he hasn’t mustered much compassion for an entire population of terrorized widows and orphans. And he is cementing in place the very hopelessness he dreads, by continuing to avert his eyes from the first genocide of the 21st century.