Day 141 of Bush's Silence

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

May 31, 2005

Nyala, Sudan

A reader from Eugene, Ore., wrote in with a complaint about my harping on the third world:

"Why should the U.S. care for the rest of the world?" he asked. "The U.S. should take care of its own. ... It's way past time for liberal twits to stop pushing the U.S. into nonsense or try to make every wrong in the world our responsibility."

And while that reader wasn't George W. Bush, it could have been. Today marks Day 141 of Mr. Bush's silence on the genocide, for he hasn't let the word Darfur slip past his lips publicly since Jan. 10 (even that was a passing reference with no condemnation).

There are several points I could make to argue that it's in our own interest to help Darfur. Turmoil in Darfur is already destabilizing all of Sudan and neighboring Chad as well, both oil-exporting countries. And failed states nurture terrorists like Osama and diseases like polio, while exporting refugees and hijackers.

But there's an even better argument: Magboula, a woman I met at the Kalma Camp here.

She lived with her husband and five children in the countryside, but then as the Arab janjaweed began to slaughter black African tribes like her own, she and her family fled to the safety of a larger town. In December, the Sudanese Army attacked that town, and they ran off to the bush. Two months ago, the janjaweed militia caught up with them.

First the raiders shot her husband dead, she said, her voice choking, and then they whipped her, taunted her with racial insults against black people and mocked her by asking why her husband was not there to help her. Then eight of them gang-raped her.

They may also have mutilated her. At one point she spoke of being slashed with a knife in the shoulder and chest, but when I asked her about it, she kept changing the subject.

"I was very, very ashamed, and very frightened," she said, leaving it at that.

After the attack, Magboula was determined to save her children. So they traipsed together on a journey across the desert to the Kalma Camp, where a small number of foreign aid workers are struggling heroically to assist 110,000 victims of the upheaval. Magboula carried her 6-month-old baby, Abdul Hani, in her arms, and the others, ranging from 2 to 9, stumbled beside her.

Magboula finally arrived at Kalma a few weeks ago. But the Sudanese government is blocking new arrivals like her from getting registered, which means they can't get food and tents. So Magboula is getting no rations and is living with her children under a straw mat on a few sticks.

Then a few days ago, Abdul Hani, Magboula's baby, died.

She and her children are surviving on handouts from other homeless people who arrived earlier and are getting U.N. food. They have almost nothing themselves, but they at least have the compassion to help those who are even needier.

The world might also respond if people could see what is going on, but Sudan has barred most reporters from the area. I'm here because I accompanied Kofi Annan on a visit - bless him for coming! - and then jumped ship while here.

Magboula and the 2.2 million other homeless people from Darfur need food and shelter, and President Bush has been good about providing that. But above all they need the international community to shame Sudan for killing and raping people on the basis of their tribe. Each time Sudan has been subjected to strong moral pressure, it has backed off somewhat - but lately the attention has subsided, and Mr. Bush even killed the Senate-passed Darfur Accountability Act, which would have condemned the genocide.

What killed Magboula's husband and child was, indirectly, the world's moral indifference.

Others can still be saved if there is unrelenting pressure on Sudan to disarm the janjaweed, on intransigent Sudanese rebels to negotiate seriously for peace (instead of lounging about their hotel suites) and on governments like Egypt's and China's to stop being complicit in the Darfur genocide.

When Americans see suffering abroad on their television screens, as they did after the tsunami, they respond. I wish we had the Magboula Channel, showing her daily struggle to forge ahead through humiliation and hunger, struggling above all to keep her remaining children alive. If you multiply Magboula by 2.2 million, you get the reasons why we should care.

E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com