U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has taken a first hand look at the humanitarian crisis resulting from violence in Sudan's western Darfur region where 180,000 people have been killed and two million forced out of their homes. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel is traveling with Mr. Zoellick and has details from Kalma Camp, one of the largest sites for displaced people in Darfur.
Peacekeepers from the African Union welcomed Mr. Zoellick at one of their district headquarters in Darfur.
There are about 7,000 AU troops in the region, trying to provide security in an area roughly the size of France.
They are protecting these African towns and villages from marauding pro-government militias, known as Janjaweed, that have been active in Darfur since rebel groups launched an insurrection in 2003.
Major Bongani Majola, a peacekeeper from South Africa, says Janjaweed fighters are the main reason for the massive migration of displaced people in Darfur. "Wherever they move there is chaos. They shoot, they kill, they loot, especially the animals," he said.
After meeting with the African Union representatives and local tribal leaders, Mr. Zoellick visited a recently vacated village near the town of Sheria.
Here Mr. Zoellick received conflicting reports about which group was responsible for starting a battle that left about 80 people dead. During multiple attacks the remainder of the population ran to Sheria, or out into the adjacent desert where conditions are extremely harsh.
As Mr. Zoellick toured the village, he had an extraordinary argument with a local pro-government commissioner, who identified himself as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's representative in the area.
Mr. Zoellick was clearly irritated that the local official refused to allow his party to independently tour the vacant village. "Either you go, or I go to President Bashir and tell him that you are uncooperative," he said. "What is your name sir?"
Commissioner: "I'm al-Bashir here."
Zoellick: "Give me your name."
Commissioner: "I'm al-Bashir here"
Zoellick: "We will write President Bashir and I will say I come to your country and I can't get the straight story. Will that be helpful to you?"
Commissioner: "Why do you refuse me to be with you here?"
Zoellick: "Out. Out!"
Whether the Darfur rebels or the pro-government militias are responsible for these deaths, Deputy Secretary Zoellick told VOA civilians are clearly being caught in the crossfire.
Zoellick: "You are going to continue to have violence and counter violence and that is why people want to try to push the peace process forward to avoid it."
Buel: "And you find this to be one of those classic situations where the innocents are caught in the middle?"
Mr. Zoellick received a far warmer welcome from singing children at the Kalma Camp, where nearly 90,000 displaced persons have fled seeking shelter and humanitarian care.
A relief worker at Kalma, Bob Kitchen of the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee, says conditions in the camp, and in Darfur in general, continue to deteriorate.
"The government has strong rhetoric that the rural communities in Darfur are now safe for return," he said. "We don't agree with that rhetoric. We still believe they are dangerous and we can see that in the conflict that is happening and continuing and spreading in the last couple of months."
Mr. Zoellick hopes ongoing talks between the Darfur rebels and the Khartoum government will produce a peace agreement similar to the one signed earlier this year in Sudan, after a 21-year civil war between the northern and southern areas of the country.