ADRE, Sudan, June 16, 2004 — -- It is being called the greatest humanitarian crisis the world faces today. Some estimates put the death toll at 350,000, while 1 million people are in refugee camps, and tens of thousands more are on the run.
Those figures alone add up to catastrophe, and it is the brutal reality in a place called Darfur, Sudan's westernmost province, bordering on Chad.
Darfur has become a conflict point in a country that has known conflict for more than two decades. The war in southern Sudan has dominated headlines for years, but little is known about the war in the west, which has erupted violently in recent months.
In February of last year, black rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated government in the capital, Khartoum. The essence of the rebels' cause is a fight for better treatment in a region that has long been marginalized. The rebels are determined to force the Sudanese government to commit more of the newfound oil money to impoverished Darfur.
The government responded swiftly to the uprising, launching a lightning campaign to wipe out the rebels. Antonov planes bombed villages where the rebels were thought to be hiding and on the ground where the Sudanese military armed and supported an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed.
The Janjaweed raced through villages, usually mounted on horses or camels, destroying homes, killing and driving people off their land.
You can drive for miles and miles, hundreds of miles in fact, and see nothing but empty villages. Tens of thousands of people in Darfur have gathered for safety in squalid camps for the displaced, and they are too afraid to go home.
Virtually everyone tells the same story: How the Janjaweed came and burned homes, killed people, raped women.
Halwa, a 13-year-old girl, stands with her seven sisters — they are all orphans now.
"The Arabs attacked first, then the government planes came and shot at us," she said.
There is also a flood of testimony indicating that Janjaweed attack only black Sudanese, often bypassing Arab villagers.
Ahmed Adam Ahmed said it is pretty obvious what is going on: "They kill only black people."
Ahmed is convinced it is all part of a government plan to drive all black farmers out of Darfur. One U.S. government official has gone so far as to call what's happening ethnic cleansing. Others, including senior humanitarian representatives, are calling it genocide.
The Sudanese government, meanwhile, denies all accusations. While admitting there have been civilian "casualties," the government claims it's all part of a legitimate right to fight a rebel movement and that the civilians are merely caught in the middle.
Yet 1 million people have been driven from their homes and are now struggling to survive in horrific conditions inside Darfur and along the border with Chad.
The United Nations and other relief agencies have complained bitterly that the government is obstructing efforts to help the people and, indeed, only recently have humanitarian workers been granted visas to travel to Darfur.
Several high-profile delegations have gone to Darfur to survey what is going on — most recently, one led by Carol Bellamy, the head of UNICEF. She demanded the Sudanese government do more to ease the plight of the people and called on the world to respond quickly.
The great fear is that with so many people in camps just as the rainy season is starting, it will be difficult to keep the relief supplies coming. The nightmare scenario that could follow: widespread hunger and disease.