Earlier this week, news broke that a trophy hunter had killed one of Zimbabwe’s most famous animals, a lion named “Cecil.” As the story goes, the lion was lured out of Hwange National Park, where it was protected, shot with a crossbow and 40 hours later, as it was still dying, killed with a gun, beheaded, and skinned. It is believed the hunter paid approximately $54,000 to kill a creature that would have brought millions of dollars’ worth of tourism to the park and the struggling nation of Zimbabwe.

After being identified in the media on Tuesday, a dentist from Minnesota admitted to killing the lion, but said he believed the hunt was legal at the time. Within a day Dr. Walter J. Palmer had become an internet sensation, for all the wrong reasons. The public was enraged. The level of vitriol was shocking. The dentist received death threats. One of many protestors picketing Palmer’s office screamed into a megaphone, “Murderer! Terrorist!”

By Wednesday, Palmer had closed his practice.  By Thursday, an online petition to the Obama administration calling for the dentist’s extradition to face charges in Zimbabwe had received more than 200,000 signatures. Zimbabwe’s environment minister also asked for the extradition of the “foreign poacher.” Palmer hadn’t been seen in public since he was identified as the lion’s killer.

For me, the most fascinating part of this story is the way the public latched on to it, turning a man who was an ordinary citizen one day into a global pariah the next. Walter Palmer is likely living in fear now, perhaps petrified to leave his home. His actions have cost him his career, and may yet cost him his freedom should he be extradited to Zimbabwe.

Imagine what could happen if the world turned on perpetrators of human suffering the way it has turned on the dentist from Minnesota. I don’t say this to minimise the act of illegally killing a protected member of a declining species. I am just so very curious about how this issue has captured the world’s attention in a way human tragedy often fails to.

Why is there rarely a similar response to people in positions of power who commit atrocities against human beings? What would happen if there were?

The examples I could offer are many, but I will choose just one: the ethnic cleansing of Sudan’s Nuba people by their government. In the 1990s, Sudan’s government killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people of the Nuba, imposing a humanitarian blockade so relief could not reach the region. And, it began again in 2011 with the government military and allied militias targeting and killing civilians in the oil-rich state of South Kordofan. The militias were given orders to “just sweep away the rubbish” – to “clean up” the Nuba people. Citizens were rounded up. Open pits were prepared for their bodies. Entire villages were burned to the ground. Tens of thousands of people fled the area, many to the Nuba Mountains where they became victims of an aerial bombing campaign that continues today as the people take shelter in caves shared by spitting cobras, or in holes dug in the ground. Once again, humanitarian assistance has been blocked.

In August 2014, two of Sudan’s senior military officials spoke at a military meeting about the government campaign to starve Nuba’s civilians. “We should attack them before the harvest,” one suggested, “and bombard their food stores and block them completely.” That’s just what they did.

New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof calls it “The Worst Atrocity You’ve Never Heard Of” – this most recent ethnic cleansing of the Nuba people that has gone on for four years, a daily targeting of “schools and hospitals and ordinary people who live in grass huts.” In his reports Kristof has shared stories of parents who recently watched their children burn alive, or held a toddler whose head had been severed by shrapnel, after government bombs landed in “foxholes” they were hiding in.

Osman Shanta interviewed by Nicholas Kristof in 'The Worst Atrocity You've Never Heard Of'_Nuba
Four of Osman Shanta’s five children were killed in February 2015, after a bomb strike. Screen capture from NY Times video.
Hamida Osman  interviewed by Nicholas Kristof in 'The Worst Atrocity You've Never Heard Of'_Nuba
Hamida Osman interviewed by Nicholas Kristof. Her daughter was killed in June 2015. Screen capture from NY Times video.

Books could be written about why Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, who presided over the genocide in the 1990s as well as more recent atrocities in Darfur, has not only not been stopped, but has been allowed to criss-cross the globe a free man. Unlike the man who killed Zimbabwe’s beloved lion, al-Bashir is not in hiding. He has not lost his career. Although he is responsible for the deaths of millions of his own citizens since he came to power, Sudan’s brutal president has not captured the attention of the global public. He has not become the target of a popular campaign to see him pay for his crimes. In spite of arrest warrants issued against al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court in 2009 and 2010 for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur—warrants that mean any U.N. member state can apprehend him—Bashir has travelled freely to other nations including Ethiopia, Nigeria, China, Qatar, and Egypt. In June, he travelled to South Africa to attend an African Union summit, once again without being arrested.

So, what would it take for the world to mount a campaign against Omar al-Bashir? How could we make “The Worst Atrocity You’ve Never Heard Of” become the topic in every nightly newscast, on every Twitter timeline, in every conversation? And what might happen if we did?


Header image  © Anagramm / iStock

Images of Osman Shanta and Hamida Osman taken from video included in The New York Times report “The Worst Atrocity You’ve Never Heard Of,”  by Adam B. Ellick and Nicholas Kristof. 

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