When I heard Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick would be traveling to Sudan's Darfur region, I jumped at the opportunity to go with him. Darfur is the scene of one of the greatest man-made humanitarian crises of our time and in recent months it has become increasingly difficult for reporters to visit. Last September, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said genocide is being committed in Darfur, a term reserved for only the most horrific mass crimes ever committed, and ever since the government has made it even more difficult than usual for American journalists to get into the region.
Zoellick traveled with a small contingent of press: five print reporters and three of us from ABC: Producer Richard Coolidge, photographer Wayne Boyd and me. Our first stop was Khartoum, Sudan's historic capital, located where the White Nile joins the Blue Nile to form the Nile River.
At Sudan's presidential palace -- a coldly majestic building haunted with the ghosts of Sudan's bloody past and present -- Zoellick met with Vice President Ali Osman Taha, considered by many to be the most powerful man in Sudan. After the meeting, Taha took Zoellick on a tour of the palace, showing him the spot where the most famous event ever to happen in the palace took place: the killing and beheading of British General Charles "Chinese" Gordon.
Gordon waged a heroic fight to end slavery in Sudan as the colonial governor in the 1870s. A decade later, British Prime Minister William Gladstone sent Gordon back to Sudan to deal with an Islamic rebellion led by an ally of the slave traders who proclaimed himself the Mahdi, Arabic for the "expected one." The Mahdi's holy warriors overwhelmed the British and their Egyptian allies, slaughtering Gordon in the palace. Although the precise circumstances of Gordon's death are disputed, Taha showed Zoellick the version depicted in the movie classic "Khartoum," starring Charlton Heston and Lawrence Olivier. In the Hollywood version, Gordon stood, unarmed, atop a stone staircase as one of the Mahdi's holy warriors thrust a spear into his heart. Gordon's head was then put atop a stake and paraded around Khartoum, a gruesome symbol of the defeat of British imperialism on the Nile and a lasting lesson to Westerners who try to control events in Sudan.
Zoellick managed to get out of Sudan with his head intact, but Sudan poses one of the most perplexing challenges to President Bush's inaugural vow to fight tyranny in the world. For the past two years, Sudan's western Darfur region has been the scene of an orchestrated campaign of rape, killings and pillage. There are wildly varying estimates of how many have been killed, ranging from 70,000 to more than 300,000. There have been so many villages torched and plundered that virtually everyone in Darfur seems to now be living in refugee camps. About 2.6 million people live in all of Darfur, an arid region the size of Texas. Today more than 2 million of them live in refugee camps, one of the largest-scale humanitarian crises in modern times.