Reporter's Notebook: Actor Don Cheadle in Sudan

According to the United Nations, nearly 2 million people have been forced from their homes by a campaign of killing and expulsion in the Darfur region of Sudan. The United Nations estimates more than 70,000 people have been killed, 400 villages have been destroyed and 200,000 villagers have fled across the border into Chad.

Watch "Nightline" on Thursday night at 11:35 p.m. ET to see an interview with Paul Rusesabagina.

I was invited to join five members of Congress on a fact-finding mission to see refugees and the way they are forced to live.

Late last month, we traveled with Paul Rusesabagina, the man I portray in the film "Hotel Rwanda," which is about the genocide of 800,000 people in Rwanda more than a decade ago. Rusesabagina used his hotel as an impromptu refugee camp and saved more than 1,000 lives.

I agreed to go to Sudan because I think it would be very disingenuous for me to have been saying all this time since we made the movie, "We can't allow this to go on," and "We have to get involved" -- and I had the opportunity to get involved and didn't.

Lined Up in Rows

We entered Sudan from neighboring Chad. Our first stop was a military base belonging to the 53-nation African Union, which is monitoring the activities in Sudan.

A stone's throw from the front gate of the compound was an all-but-abandoned village. An estimated 40,000 people used to live there, but fewer than 200 residents remained. They all fled across the border into Chad because the villagers did not feel safe in Sudan.

We then made a long dusty drive back to Chad to visit a transit camp on the outskirts of a town called Am Nabak. It temporarily houses 16,000 refugees -- many of whom were lined up in rows silently waiting for the delegation to arrive.

To me, it felt like they were put on display. We later learned they had assembled as a sign of respect. Just looking at their faces and looking in their eyes, I was trying to imagine what they had seen. I felt very small -- insignificant and humbled.

Some of the refugees displayed hand-drawn posters illustrating the ground and air attacks that drove them off their land and into this camp.

When the day ended, the delegation left. Paul and I stayed behind to visit more refugees.

Return Them to Their Homes

We started the next morning at the transit camp at Am Nabak again, where we got a look at the shacks the refugees have constructed from sticks, plastic and earth to protect them from the harsh desert sun.

They busied themselves hauling water from taps at the edge of the camp, grinding grain for bread and meal, and mixing mud to reinforce their huts against the wind and the biting cold.

Children were all over the place. Some were working, but most were playing and watching us. They knew we were from the outside world. They reminded Rusesabagina of the children he had seen in his native Rwanda.

The best thing to do for them is to return them to their natural environments -- or else they would be completely lost, he said.

We also met Emile Belem, the head of operations at Camp Am Nabak as well as two other refugee camps in the area. He had been working in the area for more than a year, and was about to leave.

He said conditions were improving, but he still faced life-and-death decisions on a daily basis. He once had to leave a little girl behind when his truck was overflowing with refugees and there was no room.

"It was very, very difficult for me to see such a situation because there's a lot of children in such situation. If we cannot provide help, it is also affecting us," he said.

A Plea for Help

We also met a young woman named Fatima who fled her village after government troops attacked. She walked seven days to get to the camp -- all during the night, because the gangs make it dangerous to walk during the day.

Speaking through a translator, she told us she lost her mother, her five children and her husband. She was alone at the camp with one child.

She pleaded for help. "What we need from the United States is to take this government out of Sudan," she said. "To replace the government."

After two hours at the refugee camp, hundreds of children were assembled in front of us, seemingly out of nowhere.

Unlike the congressional delegation of the day before, we hadn't announced our arrival. The refugees are surprisingly media-savvy. They even erected a sign to get their point across. It read: "Welcome our guests. We need education."

The Poor and the Poorer

Our final stop was Touloum, a sprawling camp that's home to 21,000 refugees. Unlike Am Nabak, it's considered to be a permanent camp.

Toulom is far enough away from the Sudanese border that CARE, the worldwide relief organization that runs it, feels it's less likely to be attacked. Instead of mud and plastic and wood shacks, the refugees live in tents, a longer-lasting form of shelter.

Refugees had been streaming in. According to those who run the camp, Toloum had had 3,000 new arrivals in the last two months.

The administrators must deal with challenges common to all refugee camps, such as disease, despair and fear. But they also face one more: competition for scarce resources between impoverished locals and refugees.

For example, refugees often come into conflict with locals over firewood because trees are so scarce in the area. Wells are also rare, and when camps receive water by truck, locals sometimes come in to the camps to partake. The refugees, with food and medical resources available to them, are in a way better off than the local people.

A Personal Experience

John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group says the trick is to do more before these tragedies happen, not afterward.

"We simply don't or can't respond, or are simply unwilling to respond, while these things are happening," said Prendergast, who has worked with refugees in Africa for two decades.

A political solution needs to be found right away before more people become refugees and more refugees see their suffering prolonged, he says. "You can hear that clock ticking in the background."

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration said urgent action is also needed because "when people grow up without hope, they are more susceptible to extremist themes and to be swayed."

Rusesabagina says the lessons of Darfur are clear: "As human beings, we live and learn from the past and from what we see in order to plan a better future."

For me, the experience of seeing the refugees has had a lasting effect. It's one thing to know the numbers and to just think about it as statistics, and it's another thing to actually touch these people and to sit with them and hear their stories and really share with them on a human level.

If anyone were to do that, I don't see how you could turn your back and be glib or aloof about what is happening to these people here ever again.

"Nightline" producer Rick Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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