The government of Sudan wants the world to believe the humanitarian crisis in Darfur has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, it says, it's not really a crisis at all.
As part of a renewed public relations effort to respond to international condemnation of the violence in Darfur, the Sudanese government took a group of African intelligence officials on a day trip to the region. A few operatives from Britain's MI6 intelligence service came as well. I was invited on the trip along with a small band of foreign correspondents.
Sudan's vice president, Ali Osman Taha, explained that the troop "will assist you in making your own sound judgments, your own evaluations, based on realistic information, away from misleading, malicious media reports."
This was a most unusual tour of Darfur.
At 6 a.m. we loaded onto an old Boeing 737 in Khartoum for the two-hour flight to North Darfur. The air conditioning on the plane wasn't working — which is not a good thing when it is more than 100 degrees outside and every seat on the plane is taken. I sat next to an intelligence official from Zimbabwe, a country that knows a thing or two about human rights abuses.
"How's life in Zimbabwe," I asked her.
"It's tough," she said. "But what do you expect? Revolution is difficult."
Difficult indeed. Human rights organizations have labeled Zimbabwe as one of the most repressive governments in the world. Most recently its government has been condemned for bulldozing the homes of thousands of people in the slums of its capital city in a campaign Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe calls "Operation Clear the Filth." The destruction is on such a large scale, you can actually see it in satellite photographs. The United Nations estimates more than 500,000 people have been made homeless.
My seatmate didn't see what all the fuss is about.
"Who wouldn't want to clean their backyard?" she said, insisting that the people had been given more spacious homes elsewhere.
Shortly after landing at the El Fasher airport in North Darfur, we were packed into buses and taken to the Abu Shouk refugee camp, one of the largest in Darfur with an estimated population of 44,000, according to the humanitarian group Oxfam. On two previous trips to this refugee camp, the people here told me how they fled their tiny villages in terror as their homes were destroyed by government-armed militias.
But this time the refugees would tell us nothing.
As our bus rolled through the sprawling camp, it became clear that our hosts had no intention of stopping. This was a driving tour, as if we were going through an animal park, except instead of animals outside the windows of the bus, we could see squalor and human suffering.
We were told there was no time to stop and actually talk to the refugees. There was, however, time for three separate speeches by Osman Mohamed Yousif Kibir, the governor of North Darfur, including an hourlong briefing in which he told us the situation had vastly improved. Sounding like a mayor running for re-election, he rattled off a series of statistics: Crime is down, the economy is improving and the schools are getting better.
"How many people do you think have been killed here in Darfur since 2003?" I asked him.
He answered me, speaking the first words of English I had heard him utter all day long.
"Less than 9,000," he said.
I thought I must have misheard him. U.N. officials estimate about 200,000 have been killed. Even the most conservative estimates put the number at more than 80,000.
"Less than 9,000."
"Less than 9,000 people?"
The Sudanese government has blocked efforts to put a U.N. force of 23,000 peacekeepers into Darfur, but there is a U.N. mission here. The top U.N. official here briefly addressed the delegation, but he was decidedly off message:
"We are here not because the situation is good," he said. "It's because the situation is bad."
Before sending us back on our toasty 737 for the flight back to Khartoum, the governor threw the delegation a party at his compound.
Inside the governor's walled compound, antelope played among the trees while dancers in brightly colored dresses pranced around on the green grass. There was music, singing, men dancing around with ceremonial swords.
This was the Darfur the governor wanted us to remember. Meanwhile, more than a mile away were the tens of thousands of refugees of the Abu Shouk camp. There was no dancing, singing or feasting over there.