For New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, the story of Ms. Suad, a woman gang-raped in the Sudan, represents both a trademark style of storytelling and hope for overcoming the genocide taking place in the Darfur region of the country.
Last night, during his lecture "Raising a Moral Voice," sponsored by Tufts Hillel, Kristof told a rapt and packed Cohen Auditorium the woman's story. He said that she was gathering firewood with her 10-year-old sister when Darfur's Janjaweed militias, which have been wreaking havoc in the region, were seen approaching. If captured, both women would almost certainly be raped.
Suad used herself as a diversion to allow her sister to flee, save her virginity and thus, her marriage prospects. But by helping her sister to escape unscathed, Suad was gang-raped by eight men and brutally beaten afterward.
Only a month later, when Kristof was interviewing refugees, Suad allowed her story to be told, her name to be used and her picture to be taken.
"When somebody like that will provide that kind of a moral voice and will take all of the risks to stand up to genocide, I just hope we can somehow emulate a little bit of that moral courage when we have nothing to lose," he said.
Kristof described how stories like this help him touch, inspire and provoke readers in his regular column in the Times.
"It's really hard to engage people with big numbers," he said. "People do care about individual people, especially if they have a face they can connect to.
"I found myself looking for and using the most horrifying stories I [could] find," he said, though he admitted to feeling jaded and conflicted at times in doing so. But the need to raise awareness through this method has won out despite his doubts. "It's the best way to shake people out of their torpor, and [it] will make them respond," he said.
To this end, he presented a brief slideshow featuring a m?©lange of faces from Darfur: images of empty eyes staring from faces beaten, sad, with flies buzzing on open wounds.
He explained one particularly jarring photograph.
"The latest fad for the Janjaweed has been to gouge out men's eyes with bayonets," he said of one picture of a man with bloody bandages across his face. "If you could look at the expression [on] his children's faces when they looked at their father ... they wanted to love him, and they saw this monster. And that look of horror on their faces was the saddest thing in the world.
"They have been very open about talking about it," he said when asked whether the displaced are willing to open up about their experience. "People want to talk when their husband has been killed, when two of their children have just been killed. They know that's wrong. They want to say something."
He said that as an American journalist he was welcomed in Darfur. "People are delighted to see an American, a foreigner, a journalist," he said. "If there is a foreigner around, it's a little less likely they're going to be killed that afternoon."
Kristof said he is often asked why he focuses on Darfur when there is so much other injustice and misery in the world, which he calls a fair question.
"In the end, we all have a moral compass within us, and that compass is partly moved by human suffering, but it's also moved by evil, if you will," he said. "You can't talk to mothers who've had their kids thrown into bonfires and not feel there is evil out there."
While uncompromising about Darfur's myriad horrors, Kristof remained tirelessly optimistic about existing efforts and the possibility of change.
He said that President George W. Bush, to his credit, has given ample aid to the crisis, including medical care, food and tents. He has also underlined the situation's seriousness by terming it a genocide, a term other presidents have historically eschewed.
Activism and enthusiasm have run high on college campuses and in some parts of the country, he said.
"If this commotion hadn't risen up, the death toll would be hundreds of thousands higher than it is. The movement has saved a lot of lives. It could have saved even more if we had been able to do more," he said.
But the genocide has still failed to capture the national consciousness, Kristof said, and he longs to see the causes, not just the destruction, addressed.
"... Three years ago you [saw] a doctor pulling bullets out of kids' bodies," he said. "After three years of this, we need to do more than just fund more doctors and fund more surgery. We need to stop the people doing the shooting in the first place."
Accordingly, he said the United States could make more use of its international clout to defuse the situation. Bush, he said, could speak more often and more forcefully about the humanitarian crisis.
"Governments [committing genocide] are ashamed of what they're doing," Kristof said, describing that when publicity about killings increases, militant activity lessens, but rises again when attention is distracted elsewhere.
He characterized the Sudanese government not as an irrational body like the fanatical Taliban, but as a rational one that would respond to incentives.
Creating a no-fly zone to prevent village bombings and encouraging international commitment to a peace process would be crucial steps, Kristof said.
On a broader scale, he said people should do their part to write to their representatives; citizen input can help because the issue has "not yet reached critical mass" at the national level.
Sadly, Kristof said, the situation is only getting worse because Janjaweed raids have spread and aid workers have begun to pull out, threatened by deteriorating security and Janjaweed intimidation.
In response to audience questions, Kristof addressed divestment from Sudan, a plan he supports. "I'm generally a skeptic about divestment policies in general," he said, explaining how economic sanctions can damage development in the long run. But for oil revenues largely concentrated in the hands of the elite few, a squeeze from foreign investors could have an impact, he said.
Kristof spoke highly of college students, including Tufts students, who have been leaders in bringing a moral voice. "Here at Tufts, you folks have done that in particular. The stereotype is that university students while away for four years in drunken debauchery," he said. "You guys never got that memo."
Dead silence, then uneasy laughter, rippled through the audience.
"I guess some of you are shaking your heads," Kristof said, to more laughter. "But you also found time to provide real moral leadership on issues like Darfur, and for that I salute you."