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A Journey Through Darfur

A Look At Life In The Sudanese Refugee Camps

Approximately 70,000 people have been killed so far in the African country of Sudan. And at least 1.5 million people are on the run.

60 Minutes contributing producers Kira Kay and Jason Maloney crossed the border of Chad into Sudan to report on what the United Nations has called the biggest humanitarian crisis on earth.

When we traveled to edge of Chad for 60 Minutes this summer, we were bracing for what would be an overwhelming experience in the refugee settlements that had sprung up along the border that country shares with Sudan.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees had walked for days to flee violent attacks by the Janjaweed – an Arab militia that is waging a slash-and-burn campaign to drive all Africans from the region.

We knew that these refugees hovered on the razor's edge of disaster: humanitarian aid workers were rushing to put the basic needs in place to ensure their survival through the rainy season that was then only a few short weeks away.

But what we weren't prepared for was what we would see when we slipped across that border into the barren landscape that is Darfur.

What life still exists there in the face of genocidal violence is seldom captured on camera because of the dangers and difficulties involved in traveling illegally through this land of no roads, rebel warlords and militias on horseback. This is the Sudan the government doesn't want you to see.

What there is to see is a grotesque landscape of mass graves, torched huts, villages pockmarked with craters from aerial bombardment (one village still had an unexploded missile sitting in the middle of its town square), desperate people who risked their lives by coming out of their mountain hideaways in search of water, and the overall brutality of a campaign that leaves nothing behind but burned pairs of shoes and a child's school bag scattered open in the sand.

Logistically, crossing the border into Sudan is as simple as driving through a 20-yard-wide dry riverbed. We chose a spot that our driver had assured us was not regularly patrolled.

Once this simple crossing was made, however, it was clear we were in outlaw territory: Rebels rule the area, and we met them with regularity as they guarded the few remaining water wells and patrolled what was left of the local towns.

The rebels are young and old. We met a 13-year-old who was fighting to avenge the death of his father, and Suleiman Jamous, the hardened old commander of one of the fighting factions. They wear talismans around their necks to protect them from bullets: necklaces made of tiny boxes of leather, each of which holds a verse of the Koran.

The journey through North Darfur was hard and perilous. Pushing the four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser out of sand drifts became a ritual, made more strenuous by the punishing 120-degree desert heat. We were twice stopped and held by rebel factions surprised by our sudden appearance.

At night, we drove up and down the riverbeds, known as wadis, looking for enough tree cover to conceal our jeep from any passing army patrols or Janjaweed sorties. On our return to Chad, our guide became disoriented and lost the way; only our handheld GPS saved us from driving straight into a Sudanese army garrison.

In early September, we returned to the Chad-Sudan border with 60 Minutes Wednesday correspondent Scott Pelley. In the short time between our trips, thousands of tents had sprung up in the desert, an impressive emergency response by the International Rescue Committee and the United Nations to house the estimated 19,000 refugees in the immediate area.

Although new refugees arrived daily, and conditions were precarious, most now had at least some sort of shelter, and access to the tons of water and food that had been driven in from hundreds of miles away.

The rainy season had also arrived as promised: those dry riverbeds were now filling up and become rushing rivers in an instant. In fact, a large wadi that hadn't even existed in July had suddenly sprung up between the town's landing strip and the camp -- a physical hurdle we had to cross carefully, and a psychological one that made the border region feel even more isolated than it had before.

Things don't always go smoothly when you are shooting in distant locations, and deals don't always stick. We were reminded of this the hard way when we reached Chad's capital at 4 a.m., not so fresh off the flight from the United States via Paris.

We were expecting to link to a charter that would take us on the three-hour flight to the border. The plane was there, and so was the pilot, but he calmly explained that because of an "increase in the price of gas" the day before, our flight would now cost three times as much as the agreement we had originally made. And no, they don't accept credit cards. As local aid workers later explained to us, we'd been "Chadded."

These days, Chad's capital, N'Djamena, is flush with oil workers from Texas and Louisiana. And with the oil workers come the bold and colorful characters that you meet only in such Wild West kinds of places: modern day prospectors like "Mr. Larry," an American businessman who took pity on a forlorn and broke group of CBS producers and helped to work out a deal that would get them airborne.

Kira Kay and Jason Maloney are freelancers who were hired by CBS to field produce 60 Minutes Wednesday Correspondent Scott Pelley's segment on the Darfur crisis. Previously, they have reported on civil war in Indonesia, refugee issues on the Thai-Burmese border, terrorism in Yemen and peacekeeping in Sierra Leone.