Celebrating the Power of One

Wishing all a celebratory International Women’s Day.

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Nicholas Kristof is an Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times.  To many, he is just a man who speaks his peace via the news media – but to millions of others, he may as well be their hero and savior.

Nicholas Kristof: Courtesy NYT

Nicholas Kristof: Courtesy NYT

I first took notice of Mr. Kristof when my husband would read me his columns on occasion and comment on his keen ability to find incredible stories to report and comment on.  But he did not only just report – he changed lives.

One such life was that of a Pakistani village woman by the name of Mukhtaran Mai.  In short, she became the victim of gang rape as a form of honor revenge by the ruling tribesmen – the revenge was issued by the tribal council.  While the perpetrators, thought she would succumb to the shame and horror and commit suicide, Mukhtaran Mai instead spoke up, and took her case to court where her rapists were arrested and charged. She took settlement money provided to her by the government following the court case, and opened a center for refuge and education, the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization.

Nicholas Kristof became involved in reporting this story in September 2004 (the incident itself occured in June 2002).   He has since reported on Mukhtaran Mai’s case, its setbacks, and the fact that President Musharraf (Pakistan’s President during that time) had ordered that she not be able to leave the country to share her story in the US and the West, so as not to malign Pakistan’s image abroad.  Kristof has written over 30 op-ed and blog pieces relating to Mukhtaran Mai.  He continues to write of her progress and plight in the ongoing legal case which changed her life and many other women’s lives Mukhtaran Mai has touched – all because this one person shared her painful yet inspirational story with the world.

Here is a link to a comprehensive list: NYT Articles on Mukhtaran Mai by N. Kristof.

Kristof also was able to raise close to $133,000 from his readers for her endeavors of running a school for girls and women in her village. Mukhtar Mai began to work to educate girls, and to promote education with a view towards raising awareness to prevent future honor crimes. Out of this work grew the organization Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organization. The main focus of her work is to educate young girls, and to educate the community about women’s rights and gender issues. Her organization teaches young girls, and tries to make sure they stay in school, rather than work or get married. In Fall 2007, a high school was to be started by her group. The Organization also provides shelter and legal help for people, often women, who are victims of violence or injustice. [ref: Wikipedia]

His most recent piece appeared just days ago on March 2, 2009 – from his “On the Ground” Blog entry, asking us, the readers to call upon the highest of Pakistani officials to inquire if there indeed is any political interference occurring in her continuing case, and to request the government’s assurance that the judiciary will maintain their independence in the face of alleged political pressure.  [Do go to the article and act upon this request, I’m sure it will only help put some sort of pressure].

On Darfur.  Again, for years, Kristof has been the almost only resounding, continuous and unrelenting voice on the genocide in Sudan in the news media at large.  Just the other day, at a panel discussion after the showing of a documentary celebrating International Woman’s Day (entitled, “A Powerful Noise” – which also celebrate the power of 3 different women, each making their mark and voices heard) in NYC, panelist Madeleine Albright told fellow panelist Nicholas Kristof how in debt the world is to him for keeping the topic of Darfur alive and in the news media for all these years.  In fact, he has visited this war torn region over 8 times at much risk to himself.  His recent tactic has involved taking Hollywood heartthrob, George Clooney with him on the current reporting cycle, in the hopes that it will attract media attention and possibly entice the paparazzi to follow Clooney to Darfur.  Here is an excerpt from the February 19, 2009 NYT Op Ed piece:

Mr. Clooney flew in with me to the little town of Dogdoré, along the border with Darfur, Sudan, to see how the region is faring six years after the Darfur genocide began. Mr. Clooney figured that since cameras follow him everywhere, he might as well redirect some of that spotlight to people who need it more.

It didn’t work perfectly: No paparazzi showed up. But, hey, it has kept you reading at least this far into yet another hand-wringing column about Darfur, hasn’t it?

So I’ll tell you what. You read my columns about Darfur from this trip, and I’ll give you the scoop on every one of Mr. Clooney’s wild romances and motorcycle accidents in this remote nook of Africa. You’ll read it here way before The National Enquirer has it, but only if you wade through paragraphs of genocide.

The Darfur conflict has now lasted longer than World War II, but this year could be a turning point — provided that President Obama shows leadership and that the world backs up the International Criminal Court’s expected arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

The stakes are evident in this little market town of Dogdoré, whose normal population of just a few thousand has swelled to 28,000 desperate, fearful people driven from smaller villages. They don’t think it’s safe here, but they find some reassurance in numbers — and leaving town isn’t an option, either, because flying out from the dirt airstrip is the only way to avoid rampant banditry on the roads.

Aid workers were pulled from Dogdoré in the fall because of violence in the area, leaving people on their own. Aid workers have just returned, but the entire town remains on edge.

The blind eye of the world and of the nations who are able to wield power is tantamount criminal.  It seems that if harsh action is not taken in Darfur, then another kind of genocide will occur at the hands of the bystanders, not Sudan.  Kristof explains in his most recent, March 7, 2009, NYT column in its entirety:

The first gauntlet thrown at President Obama didn’t come from Iran, Russia or China. Rather, it came from Sudan, in its decision to expel aid groups that are a lifeline keeping more than a million people alive in Darfur.

Unfortunately, the administration’s initial reaction made Neville Chamberlain seem forceful. The State Department blushingly suggested that the expulsion “is certainly not helpful to the people who need aid.”

Wow.

Since then, the administration has stiffened its spine somewhat. Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations and designated hitter on Sudan, told me, “If this decision stands, it may well amount to genocide by other means.”

That’s exactly what we may be facing, for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is confirming the International Criminal Court’s judgment when it issued an arrest warrant for him on Wednesday for “extermination,” murder and rape. Now Mr. Bashir is preparing to kill people en masse, not with machetes but by withholding the aid that keeps them alive.

More than one million people depend directly on the expelled aid groups for health care, food and water. I’ve been in these camps, so let me offer an educated guess about what will unfold if this expulsion stands.

The biggest immediate threat isn’t starvation, because that takes time. Rather, the first crises will be disease and water shortages, particularly in West Darfur.

The camps will quickly run out of clean water, because generator-operated pumps bring the water to the surface from wells and boreholes. Fuel supplies to operate the pumps may last a couple of weeks, and then the water disappears.

Health clinics have already closed, and diarrhea is spreading in Zam Zam camp and meningitis in Kalma camp. These are huge camps — Kalma has perhaps 90,000 people — and diseases can spread rapidly. Children will be the first to die.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the camps may try to flee to Chad, but that would overwhelm Chad’s own impoverished and vulnerable population. And to top it off, Mr. Bashir has armed a large proxy force of Chadian rebels who are said to be preparing an attack on the Chadian government.

“This is a whole new kind of hell for the people of Darfur,” Josette Sheeran, the head of the United Nations World Food Program, told me. “The life bridge for more than a million people has just been dismantled.”

My hunch is that Mr. Bashir’s calculation is twofold. First, he hopes that if there’s enough suffering in Darfur, the United Nations Security Council will approve a one-year delay in the court’s proceedings (he miscalculated, for that won’t happen). Second, he has long wanted to get rid of aid workers in Darfur, partly because they are the world’s eyes and ears there.

I was on the Chad-Darfur border a couple of weeks ago, talking to Darfuri refugees, and they worried that Mr. Bashir might lash out after an arrest warrant. But they still rejoiced at the prospect, as a sign that the deaths of their loved ones mattered and as a sign that impunity for murder and rape might be coming to an end. Not a single Darfuri I spoke to favored a delay in International Criminal Court proceedings.

Our greatest problem in responding to Darfur is that we have never held either carrots or sticks. It’s difficult at this point to offer carrots, but the United States and other countries can wield some sticks.

Gen. Merrill McPeak, the former Air Force chief of staff and a co-chairman of the Obama presidential campaign, suggested one in an op-ed article in The Washington Post on Thursday: a no-fly zone over Darfur. The aim is to attach costs to brutality and gain leverage.

Sudan cares deeply about maintaining its air force, partly because it is preparing for renewed war against South Sudan. That means that a denial of air cover or the loss of helicopter gunships would deeply alarm Sudan’s military, and that gives us leverage.

Another option is for the government of South Sudan to take over administration of Darfur. The leaders of South Sudan have periodically offered to send 10,000 of their troops into Darfur, and if the north Sudanese government cannot provide security or look after Darfur’s needs then the south can try, with international backing.

Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, says she was intrigued by General McPeak’s proposal for a no-fly zone and adds, “I don’t think the international community can stand by and watch as thousands more people starve to death.”

“We were criticized, rightfully so, on Rwanda,” Ms. Albright said. But she noted that the Rwandan genocide ended quickly, while Darfur has dragged on for years. “You can’t watch this and not feel that there has to be something done,” she said.

Kristof’s writings have had impact on politicians, world policies and how a court may grant a victim of rape a court date in a country where that victim may have never had the opportunity to seek legal reparations.  His pen is his sword and I for one salute him for his work, vision, courage and tenacity to continue to report on topics which fade away or may never have made it to the world stage.  To those who may believe that world opinion and actions by leaders cannot be swayed by just one, I ask you to reconsider.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] March 18, 2009 at 8:53 pm · Filed under ::Interesting, ::People, ::Women, ::World Around Us ·Tagged Mukhtaran Mai, wedding, marriage, pakistani women It was nice to see a follow up and update on Mukhtaran Mai’s life in this NYT article on March 17, 2009.  I just recently wrote about her in the Nicolas Kristof post here. […]

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