American film actress Mia Farrow is touring war-ravaged areas of Sudan's Darfur region this week, hoping to draw more international focus to the plight of the nearly two million people made homeless by this country's 20-month conflict.
Hundreds of children in tattered clothes and dusty faces crowd into a straw-roofed school to sing for Mia Farrow, the goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, and her 16-year-old son Seamus.
This is Kalma camp, a shelter for more than 70,000 people - roughly a fourth of them children - displaced by the conflict in western Sudan. One Sudanese official described this as a "five-star" camp, but the conditions here are less than stellar.
Many of the children show signs of malnutrition. Hunger is more rampant still in Darfur's other government-run camps, where the spike in violence has led the United Nations and many nongovernmental aid groups to evacuate their workers, stranding some 300,000 people in need of emergency food aid.
Rape also is still a serious problem at the camps. Less than two days before Ms. Farrow's arrival at Abu Shouk camp in El Fasher, about a hundred miles north of here, two women and a 12-year-old girl were raped while collecting firewood outside the relative safety of the camps. Between August and September, the French aid agency Doctors Without Borders treated 123 cases of rape, which also carries a double burden since most victims are ostracized by their husbands and families.
Ms. Farrow, speaking to VOA in Nyala, in southern Darfur, said women at camps like Kalma collect firewood for cooking and for selling to people in nearby towns, using what little they make to buy more food for their often emaciated children.
"Leaving the camps is so dangerous and the rapes are so consistent, and they've even escalated in the last six days for some reason," she said. "And so they are faced with this terrible decision every day - they said the men can't go because they'll be killed, they'll be arrested immediately. So, the women must choose amongst themselves who will go out. Awful choices. And choices no one should have to make. And this has gone on for so many months. It's hard to believe that it's still going on. There's no protection. Tomorrow, when they wake up, they're going to be faced with this again. And that's the reality there."
Ms. Farrow met with local Sudanese officials, asking them to step up their efforts to protect camps' women and girls, usually the most vulnerable of the camp populations. So far, the police force sent in to protect them has turned out to be part of the problem. Many of the officers, the women say, are recruited from the ranks of pro-government Arab militias, known as the janjaweed, that have killed up to 70,000 people, mostly Darfur's black Africans, to help put down a rebel uprising in February of last year.
Despite strong words like genocide and ethnic cleansing to describe the atrocities in Darfur, analysts and observers say that so far there has been no meaningful response to the crisis. The AU is stepping in with a peacekeeping force of 3,300 troops, mainly from Nigeria and Rwanda. But many say the AU force is too small to cover Darfur, an area roughly the size of France, and their mandate is too limited to halt the fighting.
In Khartoum, Sudan's capital, Ms. Farrow met with several top-ranking government ministers and officials from aid groups working in the increasingly volatile Darfur region. The spike in violence was spurred in part by break down of the peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, over Sudan's reluctance to create a no-fly zone in Darfur.
Asked about whether she thought the Khartoum government was sincere in its effort to end the suffering in Darfur, Ms. Farrow had this to say:
"I feel there's a lot more that they need to be doing, and just how to go about it, I don't know honestly how they can accomplish a lot right now until there's some sort of peace accord," she said. "But what seems to be clear moving toward that, if they would agree to the no-fly zone except for humanitarian passage and if they wanted monitoring in that zone, the AU could do that function. If that's in fact what's rumored to be the big issue that's stopping the ceasefire and the peace accord, then they [Sudan's government] should give up on that one, and that would be a huge step toward beginning to create the stability that's necessary."
For now, the children enjoy their day with Ms. Farrow, which most of them will remember not as a movie star, but a woman from the United States who came to visit them and a woman who spoke up for them to a Sudanese government that so far seems deaf to their plight.