The scene had a surreal quality about it. A distinguished visitor walking through throngs of people, his way paved by local officials and security personnel. Thousands of men, women and children scurrying to keep up with the fast-paced walking tour through the red dust, past hastily thrown together tukuls (traditional grass-thatched huts) which barely provide minimal shelter from the relentless African sun or the seasonal rain.
Even for seasoned world travelers Darfur is an unusual and decidedly off-the-beaten-track destination. The western region of Sudan, Darfur is about the size of France, and if the Secretary of State of the United States decides to pay a visit, even for a few hours, there must be a compelling reason.
For Colin Powell, it took what he called a "humanitarian catastrophe" to become the first secretary of state to visit Darfur. International aid experts say hundreds of thousands of Darfurians, perhaps a million, have been driven from their villages, either to camps for so-called internally displaced persons — IDPs — inside Darfur, or to refugee camps outside their country in neighboring Chad. They are the lucky ones. It's estimated perhaps as many as another 30,000 have been killed by local militias (the Janjaweed) backed by the Sudanese government.
The Bush administration decided to raise public awareness of the situation, putting a spotlight on the crisis by having Powell pressure Sudanese officials in Khartoum to bring the Janjaweed under control and then going the extra mile by personally visiting one of the remote IDP camps to pledge the international community's efforts to resolve the problem. Everyone remembers what happened in Rwanda ten years ago, and no official of any administration wants another Rwanda.
Powell, talking to reporters aboard his plane traveling to Khartoum, explained the administration has gotten the U.N. energized, as evidenced by the same day as Powell. Sudanese officials know they face the threat of U.N. Security Council sanctions if they are not responsive to calls from the international community to allow more humanitarian aid into the region and to do it quickly, since the rainy season has already started and soon many roads will be impassable.
More candidly, Powell said "Sometimes people have to see it on television ... you've got to touch their emotions. By seeing these camps, I hope it'll elevate it above other things going on in the world."
That's why the State Department's efforts were turned to getting Powell, U.S. AID administrator Andrew Natsios and their humanitarian aid specialists, along with a small group of reporters and a contingent of security personnel, to make the first visit of an American secretary of state to the Abu Shouk IDP camp in al-Fasher, Darfur.
Powell's motorcade leaving the small airport at al-Fasher — his Air Force 757 was the first 757 to land at the remote air strip — was a collection of vehicles cobbled together for the occasion. Nineteen pickups, U.N. land rovers, assorted SUVs in various states of disrepair and at least one armored Chevy Suburban with Washington, D. C. tags flown in for Powell to ride around in made an unusual sight driving across the red sand tracks in and around al-Fasher.
Once in the Abu Shouk camp, Powell hopped out, and was escorted through the camp by an International Red Cross aid worker and local officials. The crowd surged around him, running alongside, all the while chanting his name as well as greetings in local dialects.
Powell made his way past piles of grain and other aid donated by the outside world, much of it stamped "USA." There were stacks of wood used for cooking, an occasional generator, a health center and a special feeding center for children.
This was not an IDP camp showing those most in need. Powell told reporters back in Khartoum that Abu Shouk "was under good supervision, the people had access to food, shelter ... medical care, but it was just one camp," noting further that there were many, many more camps less accessible and with people in greater need.
Even though Powell and his party did not see serious cases of hunger or malnutrition, anyone visiting the camp could clearly see 30- to 40,000 people living in horrid conditions. Add to that the reality that not only had all of these people been forcibly driven from their homes, many had had family members killed or raped by the Janjaweed.
"I came away from the trip with the understanding that we have a humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur but we also have a security crisis," Powell said. "We don't want to keep people well fed in camps. We want them to go home ... The Sudanese security forces must provide an improved security environment."
Sudan's foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, pledged action on several fronts to control the security situation and take steps to allow more humanitarian aid and more aid workers to go to Darfur. Powell said he expected it to happen in days or weeks and he held out the possibility of U.N. sanctions. Senior State Department officials told reporters they'd be watching Sudanese actions closely because their pledges in the past have not always been fulfilled.
Powell knows the situation is hard to deal with and it has many components. Now that he's seen the refugees for himself, even those in a relatively well-off way, it is a sight neither he nor anyone with him will soon forget.
"I wanted to see a camp and I wanted to see people, and that's what I saw today," Powell said. "I have been around this business long enough, I have many, many years of experience in such matters, that not one single afternoon or one single image will I use to paint the whole picture."
By Charles M. Wolfson