How a Crisis Catches World’s Attention

Times Staff Writer

The conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region is a horror: The government, trying to put down a rebellion, has sent aircraft to bomb its own people, then militiamen have swooped in to rape, kill and pillage. At least 50,000 people have died and 1.6 million have fled in the last 18 months.

Meanwhile, just south of Sudan’s border in Uganda, another catastrophe simmers: 10,000 children have been kidnapped by militiamen, thousands of women have been raped and 2 million people have been displaced in the fallout from civil war. Tens of thousands have died. Each night, parents send their children by the thousands to sleep in guarded compounds so they won’t be abducted by rebels and turned into soldiers or sex slaves.

One of these situations -- Sudan -- has been labeled by the U.N. as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The U.S. Congress and the State Department have called it genocide. Aid workers and journalists are pouring in to help the needy and chronicle the tragedy. Western political leaders are speaking out.

And in Uganda, the misery continues, virtually unnoticed by the outside world.

How does a crisis become a crisis? Or rather, how does the world single out one disaster from hundreds for its attention and support?


The question beleaguers humanitarian officials such as Jan Egeland every day as he calls capitals from his U.N. office, begging for money, visas for aid workers and news coverage for the latest tragedy. After more than a quarter of a century in human rights and relief work -- he became head of Amnesty International in Norway at 23 -- the U.N. undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, now 47, has the trajectory of a disaster down to a science. He can read the warning signs of a crisis the way a mariner knows that a ring around the moon presages a storm. And he’s learning to predict which situation will spark an international response.

Only three causes a year rise to the forefront of international consciousness, he figures, and then only after nine dire warnings have been largely ignored. The 10th one, it seems, is the charm.

But even then, to the frustration of aid officials, the severity of a crisis -- the number of dead or injured or starving -- is no guarantee that it will win the attention lottery. According to a wide range of humanitarian officials, a complex set of circumstances will determine whether the world will care -- and act -- to stave off disaster.

The first critical factor is the geopolitical importance of the individuals or place involved. Kosovo, because it was in Europe, received quick attention. So did Afghanistan -- after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. But if disaster happens someplace where no countries have a strategic stake, Egeland’s experience has shown that few will care.

The second variable is the ability of U.N. workers and other advocates to lobby and act on behalf of the forgotten.

“Most people can’t find Central African Republic or Guinea on a map,” Egeland said. “That leaves us.”

Finally, a select group of Western political and media leaders plays a key role. Once the crisis gets on American television news and the politicians start to visit, money and aid start rolling in.

“There are problems all around Africa, all around the world,” said Noelle LuSane, foreign policy advisor for Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Committee on International Relations’ subcommittee on Africa. LuSane said Sudan already had attracted attention from conservative Christians, who had become concerned in the mid-1990s about Muslims enslaving Christians in the country’s south, and black Americans. With the 10-year anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda adding resonance, people were ready to coalesce around Darfur.

“There’s no constituency like that for Uganda and Cote D’Ivoire,” LuSane said.

Egeland says he can’t get people to notice what is happening just across Sudan’s border in the Central African Republic, or in Ivory Coast or eastern Congo, where populations have been uprooted by civil wars and left without access to aid.

And then there is northern Uganda, now in its 18th year of conflict, where a messianic leader’s militia has abducted nearly 20,000 boys and girls to serve his cause. To escape the Lord’s Resistance Army, thousands of fearful children are herded each day to havens before the sun sets, creating a ghostly twilight march of “night commuters.”

The lack of interest in Uganda is particularly distressing for Egeland, because the crisis has been so prolonged and so cruel.

“I have learned that for a crisis to be newsworthy, it must be dramatic, and visual, so that people can understand what is at stake,” he said. “But everyone has children. Everyone has a mother. How else can 10,000 children kidnapped and women raped be easier to understand?”

Sudan’s case has been unusual in both the way it escaped international attention at first, and the way it then gained it. Humanitarian aid officials and human rights activists are trying to analyze why the disaster in Darfur took so long to register, so that they may better prevent the next crisis.

Egeland said he had never come across the combination of geographical isolation, political manipulation and government obstruction that enabled the problems in the western Darfur region to escalate from a manageable emergency into a humanitarian catastrophe.

In fact, violence has raged in Sudan for more than 20 years as the government has fought a rebellion in the south. An estimated 2 million people have died with little international notice.

The country’s remoteness and anarchy made it an attractive base for Osama bin Laden until the U.S. forced the government in Khartoum to expel him in the mid-1990s. Scrutiny of Sudan decreased after the United States withdrew its diplomats from the capital in 1996, citing terrorist threats. For years thereafter, Khartoum allowed only a few aid groups to work in the country, and almost no foreign reporters.

So, few outsiders noticed when a government effort to put down an uprising by black rebels in the western part of Sudan in early 2003 escalated into widespread violence against civilians.

The predominantly Arab government enjoined Arab tribes who had long-held territorial rivalries with black farmers to help remove the rebels and their kin from their land. Often the government and tribal militias worked together, with military aircraft strafing black villages, then tribesmen on horseback killing men, raping women, poisoning wells and burning homes to ensure no one would come back.

Instead of calling for help -- as many governments would do when faced with tens of thousands of their own people dying -- Khartoum kept mum and blocked outside aid to conceal its collaboration with the militias.

“It was clear that the leaders in Khartoum did not regard the black Africans as ‘their people,’ ” said USAID official Roger Winter, one of the first to recognize the severity of the situation. “They were considered ‘other.’ The government did not want this population assisted.”

When USAID workers sounded the alarm in the fall of 2003 about the scorched-earth tactics, top officials at the U.N. and in the Bush administration kept quiet. Part of the reason for their silence was their fear that a demand for action in the western region of Darfur would derail the final stage of peace talks to end the 20-year civil war in the south, U.S. and U.N. officials said.

Khartoum, calculating that the U.S. wouldn’t turn its attention to Darfur until the negotiations to end the north-south conflict were over, strung out the negotiations, hoping to wipe out the rebellion in the west.

“It was an extraordinary diplomatic blunder” on the part of the U.S. and U.N., said John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “Sudan learned very quickly that we would not turn to the humanitarian crisis until we got the peace talks wrapped. So why would they ever react to our demands?”

By February 2004, the United States was growing more concerned. Although President Bush had not yet spoken out about the situation, Washington began exerting pressure behind the scenes on Khartoum to grant visas to aid groups and journalists, who began their own reports on atrocities and refugees. But when the few aid groups working in Sudan -- Doctors Without Borders and CARE International -- reported on the dire conditions, they did not convey the ethnic dimension of the violence.

“They pulled their punches in order to maintain access,” said Eric Reeves, a Sudan watcher at Smith College who believes he was the first to publicly label the situation in Darfur genocide in late 2003. “It’s difficult to criticize them. They were the only ones there and it was important for them to stay there.”

Despite persistent urging by their top humanitarian officials, including Egeland and USAID administrator Andrew Natsios, it wasn’t until April that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Bush publicly addressed the catastrophic violence in Darfur.

What triggered the shift? Guilt, said U.S. and U.N. officials. A month before the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, they said, the leaders realized that they could not in good conscience say “Never again” when a similar situation might be occurring in Sudan. On April 7, both leaders invoked the need to help Darfur in their speeches about Rwanda -- a moment that shattered the official silence, but only hinted at action.

Yet once that silence broke, an unusual constellation of interests aligned to pressure the Bush administration to do something. Human rights organizations, among the first to sound the alarm in early 2004, pushed harder for intervention. Conservative Christian groups working to free Christian slaves refocused on Darfur. The Congressional Black Caucus sponsored a congressional resolution that termed the situation “genocide” in July. Those charges of genocide, with their echoes of the Holocaust, brought in Jewish American groups.

For Bush, it became clear that embracing the issue would win points on all sides, U.S. officials said.

In late June, in what turned out to be the tipping point for international attention, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Annan made overlapping visits to Khartoum and secured an agreement from the government to halt the violence. While they were there, the U.S. introduced a U.N. Security Council resolution that, although watered down during negotiations, put pressure on Sudan to act. On Sept. 9, Powell announced that a State Department investigation had found that the systematic killing in Darfur constituted genocide.

Nine days later, the Security Council approved an international inquiry to determine whether genocide had occurred, and authorized up to 3,000 African Union troops to protect civilians and monitor militias’ disarmament.

Now help is finally on the way, more than a year after the crisis began. Given the amount of attention that has been devoted to the situation in Darfur, aid officials expected to have sufficient pledges. But funds are falling short.

“Since April 2004 -- over one year after war broke out -- Sudan has had more [foreign] ministers and senators visit per week than most [African nations] get per year,” Egeland said. “And still, we have only half of what we need this year.”

Donors have given almost $355 million through the U.N. for Sudan -- less than half of the $722 million the U.N. asked for. The donations for Sudan are less than 5% of what was pledged in one day last year at a Madrid conference for reconstruction in Iraq. The U.S. has given 48% of the $355 million, and Europe has provided about 35%.

Humanitarian officials such as Egeland and Natsios know with grim certainty that the dying is far from over. Even with 1,000 international aid workers headed for the country, the World Health Organization predicts as many as 10,000 deaths a month indefinitely.

Nearly 1.4 million people are clustered in temporary camps in Darfur and 200,000 more are across the border in Chad, living in tent cities stalked by disease and starvation, as well as lingering militias. The violence makes aid delivery in some areas difficult, and severely malnourished people may hit the point of no return -- where no amount of food can save them because their bodies can no longer process it. The attacks prevented spring and fall planting, so there will be no harvest for seasons to come.

So, Sudan is both the winner and the loser of the cruel lottery for the world’s attention. Even as the world homes in on that crisis, other dire situations nearby remain largely forgotten.

The lesson for the international community, Egeland says, is clear: “Never accept strategic arguments to make progress on one humanitarian crisis and shut your eyes to another.”