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Elmer Smith: Myanmar, Darfur: Are we getting used to it?

BY NOW, I should be used to it. Daily dispatches from Myanmar and Darfur detail the plight of tens of thousands who die as the world wrings its hands in anguished impotence.

BY NOW, I should be used to it.

Daily dispatches from Myanmar and Darfur detail the plight of tens of thousands who die as the world wrings its hands in anguished impotence.

In Darfur, 200,000 Sudanese citizens have died since the Janjaweed, a Sudanese government-backed militia, began its systematic genocide of indigenous, non-Muslim populations. Those who weren't killed outright by the Janjaweed militia have succumbed to the disease and famine that followed.

In Myanmar, the government estimates that 78,000 are dead and 56,000 are missing in the aftermath of a cyclone on May 3 that left a million people homeless and the country's subsistence economy in shambles. With the rising specter of malaria and other diseases resulting from the contamination of decomposing bodies, the death toll is certain to rise.

Meanwhile, tons of food and medical aid, and hundreds of trained aid workers, are separated from the survivors who need them by a government that seems more concerned about keeping the world out of its business than it is in saving the lives of its people.

The Myanmar government did allow a U.S. airlift of 14 tons of supplies three weeks ago. But aid workers there report that little of it is getting to the interior because the roads remain impassable. Three U.S. Navy amphibious ships carrying 22 heavy-lift helicopters that could get the aid to the interior are floating helplessly offshore because the government of Myanmar won't allow them in.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Saturday that Myanmar has rejected 15 U.S. overtures. Gates, who calls it "criminal neglect," says we would help but cannot force aid on the government.

I should be used to it by now.

We watched the daily dispatches from Mogadishu in 1992 when 1,000 Somalis a day were dying of famine, drought and disease as roving bands of teenagers, armed with rusty rifles, thwarted an international relief effort. I thought, if I could just show the American people the cost of our inaction, they might force a change in U.S. policy.

I spent my first four days in East Africa flying between Nairobi and Mogadishu, hoping to catch a ride on a relief flight to the interior.

After four fruitless days, I went to Mombasa, Kenya, and hopped a ride to Belet Huen, Somalia, on a U.S. relief flight with 23 other reporters.

The local warlords would not allow the U.S. troops to the interior until they painted the U.S. insignia off the side of the C130. The local warlord's militia unloaded the plane, forbidding U.S. soldiers from following the trucks to the interior.

The death toll was still startling. But the heroic efforts of volunteers from international relief agencies was starting to save as many lives as the drought and famine and clan war were killing. We thought our stories were stoking the relief effort.

It all turned around a few months later when a U.S. Marine was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by fighters from one of the warring factions. The mood in the U.S. and around the world quickly shifted and the Somalis were left to their own devices.

There have been periods of calm since then. The drought and famine and even the war have subsided. The death toll has dropped in Somalia.

But Mogadishu is more of a ghost town today than it was even then. The support system that could abate the next famine or drought has collapsed, and the international community has wiped its hands.

"Compassion fatigue" was the term of art back then. The international community was tired of watching people die as its aid efforts were wasted or stolen by whatever thugs were in power at the time.

The people of Myanmar and Darfur are suffering from that compassion fatigue today. It's not that we don't care about their plight.

But, by now, we've gotten used to it. *

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