- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 7, 2004

The Darfur crisis

Suddenly, whenever I tune in a television newscast, I am confronted with heart-rending scenes of burned-out villages and desperate refugees fleeing from their homes in the western Sudanese province of Darfur.

The broadcast attention is welcome, if depressing. I hope it will spur world governments and citizens to do more to help the wretched victims of what amounts to a campaign of ethnic cleansing or worse.

But why is this emerging as a major story only now?

We had our first reference to Darfur in February 2003, when we reported that a newly formed rebel group had seized the provincial capital.

Eight months later we carried a brief item quoting charges by a Sudanese legislator that Arab tribal militias had killed 34 persons and torched several villages in the province.

And in February of this year, we reported that Sudanese troops had won a series of victories over the rebels and that President Omar Bashir was urging tens of thousands of Darfur refugees to return home from neighboring Chad.

Still, with our editors’ attention focused intently on Iraq, we were scarcely aware of Darfur. When we thought about Sudan at all, it was about a separate conflict that had been raging for two decades in the nation’s south — one that I had personally covered for a year while posted in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1989.

The Darfur crisis finally began to catch our attention in early April. Syndicated columnist Nat Hentoff wrote in our Commentary section about “black Sudanese slavery and gang rapes” in Darfur, and on April 8 our reporter Gus Constantine — who follows African issues more closely than any reporter I have worked with — gave us our first major article on the situation.

Politicians in front

Mr. Constantine quoted the International Crisis Group as saying “a humanitarian crisis looms in western Sudan,” and warned that it threatened to blindside a U.S.-backed international effort to end the civil war in the south.

The same day we carried a wire story quoting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan saying in Geneva that a “Rwandan-style genocide” may be in the making in Sudan and that an international military force could be needed.

At this point, we decided something was happening that our readers ought to be more aware of. We carried 11 more stories on Darfur before the end of April and another 14 in May.

We also financed a trip by Rwanda-based correspondent Carter Dougherty to the affected region — an arduous and expensive effort that generated two major articles with Mr. Dougherty’s photographs at the end of May.

Even so, with the insurgency raging in Iraq and all eyes focused on the scheduled June 30 turnover of authority in Baghdad, we never did manage to get the story onto the front page. The wire agencies, meanwhile, continued to file regular updates, but the story barely existed elsewhere in the media.

Now, suddenly, it is everywhere.

For one thing, the politicians, for once, got out ahead of the media on a humanitarian issue. Mr. Annan and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell forced the issue onto the front pages when they visited Darfur in quick succession in late June and early July. A resolution also was introduced at the United Nations.

Secondly, the television networks finally got to Darfur with their cameras. Pictures do drive television news and the footage of starving, fly-bitten children being shown on our screens at home stirs emotions in a way that words seldom can.

Finally, the American media seem to have decided that since the turnover of authority in Iraq, the insurgency there is less of a story — even though American interests are no less at risk and U.S. soldiers are dying in the same sort of numbers as before.

This has left a bit of room in our news reports for other issues besides Iraq.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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