UNITED NATIONS — 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?"