Letter from Darfur: Desperate Measures
Credit: Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images
The next morning we squeezed into Land Cruisers with the aid workers and a few bodyguards cradling machine guns in their laps and set off down the slope into a shallow valley at the far side of town. A green trestle bridge took us across a dry riverbed and then, atop a plateau at the other side, we came to the Riyadh, a camp for tens of thousands of displaced Darfurians. Tents and shacks stretched away out of sight, the closest put in place by IMC, the rest constructed haphazardly out of sticks and blue tarps by the residents themselves. In all nearly 2 million internally displaced people (IDP) are adrift in Darfur, typically driven from their homes by scorched-earth military campaigns intended to burn rebels out of their hiding places in rural villages. Many were innocents who had simply gotten caught in the crossfire. The people I was looking at were lucky to be alive.

We walked slowly into the camp, and curious children rushed to surround us, gently touching our clothes and laughing. It was quickly apparent that aside from a few small groups sitting together in the shade of single trees, the conflict had stolen or killed all the men, leaving this encampment of widows and orphans to fend for themselves. Women foraged for firewood at the edge of the camp and tended cooking pots within their tents, while the children spent their days pretty happily: drawing pictures with crayons in one tent, learning to read Arabic in another, or playing volleyball outside. But the upbeat feeling evaporated when I sat down with them.

"Antum mabsoot or hazeen?" I asked. Are you happy or sad?

The shy smiles disappeared. "Hazeen," they said in chorus. Sad.

They began to show me drawings of the horrors they'd witnessed. A mother and father lay on the ground next to a small house, blood coming out of their bellies. A machine gun sprayed bullets at a group of stick figures. Helicopter gunships swooped above a crayon village.

A few children took us to the camp's edge and pointed down at the plain below. Death – "mout" – awaits us there, one said quietly. Anyone who walks out of the camp is at the mercy of marauding rebels. Viewed one way, these children were safe. Viewed another way, they were trapped.

In the medical tent I watched Dr. Ali Dowelbait, IMC's physician on the scene, as he examined each in a long line of patients. A young, meticulous Sudanese doctor, he looked into eyes, felt skin, and listened to hearts and breathing as if each patient were the day's only appointment. Many found it unsettling to have a stranger touch them. But his friendly manner and murmured assurances broke through their fear, and by the end of the examination, emerging from the tent with medicine in hand, or, better yet, a clean bill of health, each smiled with relief.

After a few hours of touring the camp and speaking to residents, I asked how malnutrition had been affecting the camps, and we were taken to the therapeutic feeding ward at Geneina's hospital. It's set apart from the other buildings, and as we entered the ward one child, Yahia Abdullah, stuck out immediately.

For better or for worse, I have an eye for starvation. I've been present at terrible famines, and I could tell instantly that Yahia had true marasmus, a severe wasting of the muscles – the worst kind of malnutrition. You've seen it in photos of Ethiopia, circa 1984. His stomach was distended, his arms thin as my thumb, his smile a grimace. His mother Miriam had to help him sit up.

Starvation affects a child's personality in several ways, and most doctors will tell you that it's more tolerable to look at the emotional transformation as a physiological symptom. Like any starving child, Yahia was terrified. As his body began to shut down, he had grown edgy and miserable, as if he were being tortured. I'd rather see a child react strongly to that feeling – meaning there's fight left in him – than be listless, as Yahia was. He was beyond fighting. His eyes were dull as he watched me go, and I left the tent with his hopeless face burned into my mind.

In the past two years, I was relieved to learn, the UN World Food Program (WFP) estimated that the rate of acute malnutrition in Darfur had dropped from 3.9 percent to 1.4 percent, a miracle for a region at war. But now that I'd seen Yahia and the rest of the feeding ward, it was obvious that if the pace of development slackened or stopped – because of donor fatigue, or, worse, all-out war – the already desperate situation would be a disaster. As it was, the conflict was keeping the WFP from reaching nearly half a million people. Even if peace is kept and aid workers stay on, the region's infrastructure is gutted; it will cost millions to reestablish homes, schools, water systems, electricity, and community police forces. The camp's children looked healthy, but throughout the region supply routes were being pinched off as rebel factions, too many to negotiate with as a unified entity, took control of new territory and dug in for the long-awaited conflict with the government. Violence might cause the UN to pull out of the area, and everything would unravel. As I walked back to the IMC compound I thought about Yahia. If international aid were cut off, it would be the end of him, and of Darfur's prospects as a whole.

The next morning we followed Dr. Jill John-Kall, IMC's medical director for Darfur, back across the bridge to a camp called Abu Zar, a few miles beyond the Riyadh. A hard-charging New Yorker, perhaps five feet tall, Jill's passion shone through immediately. Although latrines were backed up and there was a two-day wait for water, she gushed about her job as the children swarmed around her. "I love this work," she said, wiping her brow in the 114-degree heat. "I can make so much more of an impact here than I can at home."

She quickly examined the children around her, handing them off to aid workers with the efficiency of a doctor obviously accustomed to quick and decisive triage. "Conjunctivitis," she said, pointing at one child's eye. She listened to another's chest. "Pneumonia." She instantly diagnosed more than a dozen cases as the children (and I) looked at her with the same mix of affection and awe. "They like me because I'm their size," she said with a humble smile. The rest of the afternoon was like a game of hide-and-seek as she darted with her stethoscope among the kids, several of whom stood taller than she did.

Just as we prepared to leave I noticed a young boy hiding in the crowd. I couldn't miss him. He was horribly disfigured by a cleft top lip that tore all the way to his nostrils, exposing his jumbled upper teeth. While these camps are adept at treating acute problems like dysentery or dehydration, kids with chronic conditions like heart trouble or, in this case, a cleft lip, have no chance in Sudan. "What can we do?" I asked Jill. Her pragmatism rose to the surface. "Nothing," she shrugged sadly. For the cost of his surgery, countless children could be rehydrated and saved from diarrhea. In Iraq I had started an organization called Operation Lifeline Iraq to help treat children with cancer by transporting them to hospitals in Jordan. There had to be a way to do something similar here. I couldn't imagine this poor child living his life as badly deformed as he was, unable to even close his mouth. He looked at me and I looked away, embarrassed.

Sudan is on the state department's list of terrorist nations (Osama Bin Laden got his start here between 1991 and 1996), and Darfur's future will be determined by whether security can be established, not just in a military sense but also on a community level by local police. Traditionally Sudan has been policed from garrison-style fortifications from which the police make only occasional forays. The country is now trying to make a transition to Western-style police work with community-level presence. I'd asked before arriving to be introduced to the regional commander, and that afternoon at the IMC compound a messenger arrived, inviting me to dinner.

As an NBC correspondent in the '90s I'd heard lurid stories from rebel leaders here about the devils who ran the northern Islamic state – how government soldiers looked like vampires, with yellow eyes. So it was with some trepidation that, a little before curfew, I crossed the colonial courtyard of the police guesthouse in Geneina and stepped inside. A group of tall, fierce soldiers turned my way, tea in hand, guns propped in a corner. In the middle of them stood an enormous man with a mustache, Major General Abdulbagi Mustafa Ahmed, the most senior police officer in the region.

Of all armed entities in Darfur, the police have the greatest interest in peace and the toughest challenge maintaining it. They're charged with holding together the fabric of society by establishing patrols, quelling everyday crime, and earning local trust, even as the Sudanese government that pays their salaries prepares for war, and as the communities they patrol give rise to rebels bent on violence. With their weather-beaten skin and hard features, they had the bearing of ancient warriors. Newsprint covered the floor between us, and as I removed my shoes and stepped forward onto it to greet them they made alarmed gestures. I stopped. One of them knelt down to reveal our dinner staying warm beneath the paper, and everyone burst into laughter. "Salaam al-laykem," one of them said. ("Peace unto you.") "Al-laykem a salaam," I answered with relief, offering a handshake. "Ismik manha?" ("And also to you. What's your name?")

Despite years of warfare, Sudan is one of the friendliest countries I've ever visited. "Kellam Arabee!" they marveled. ("He speaks Arabic!") As a reporter I had tried for eight years to embed with Sudanese security forces, with no luck; policemen, soldiers, and security personnel had been strictly off-limits to the press. Sitting down to dinner with the police I felt triumphant. I listened and nodded and interjected politely as they discussed their plans to make the region safe by establishing no-go zones around rebel fortifications and by developing a reliable framework of security everywhere else. We spent four long hours discussing these issues in Sudanese Arabic, which stretched my vocabulary to the limit. At the end of the evening they agreed that I could accompany a patrol to the border of Chad, where we'd heard gunfire the night before.

The next morning, we met our appointed guide, Dr. Salim Salim, an English-speaking Sudanese doctor who would drive us, with a police patrol, to the border. Dr. Salim trained at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and was here to set up a police hospital. Darfur is the size of France and impossible to patrol completely, with armed factions ready to shoot anyone who threatens their control of livestock or crops. But the police were trying to establish regular patrols across the region, because without secure trade corridors towns like Geneina would be cut off. Halfway to the border we saw police fanned out, standing guard over a crossroads, one of thousands used over the centuries by nomads arriving from the Sahara and now a favorite spot for ambushing supply columns. Trucks returning from Chad rolled into sight, carrying supplies for Geneina. Passengers were sprawled across the cargo, and on the hood of each truck sat one or two policemen carrying AK-47s to defend the loads. This stretch of Darfur is one of the least secure. We watched as the overloaded truck rolled by, its police escorts tensed for gunfire.

We proceeded into Asunga, a small town directly on the border with Chad. It's an outpost of trade caught between Chad's military on the far side and rebels in Darfur. A lone flag waved above a one-room house for the Sudanese border guards, the most permanent-looking structure among the smattering of thatched huts along the road. Because of the intense military and police presence, there was commerce in this unlikely place, with knockoff T-shirts, tea, grain, and fresh meat for sale. Salim pointed out that with regular policing, the whole country could be this way.

"There are massive amounts of oil on either side of the border, plus substantial deposits of uranium," he said, waving away flies as he steered. "This could be one of the most prosperous parts in all of Africa if we could just establish security." But they aren't even close yet. With the sun setting, we sped back to Geneina to avoid getting caught out after dark.