ABU SHOUK, Sudan -- Standing Friday in a vast camp sheltering as many as 100,000 refugees from violence in Sudan's Darfur region, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick asked Salwa Gaffar, a woman making pasta, where she came from.
"Number 21," Gaffar said, pointing toward one of the neat rows of mud-brick homes in the camp. Then she giggled shyly, realizing the visitor wanted to know which village she had fled in Darfur, where African rebels have been fighting government troops and Arab militias for two years.
Robert B. Zoellick also met with an ex-rebel leader in southern Sudan.
_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Photos: Continuing Crisis
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
For Rice's Deputy, a Leading Role (The Washington Post, Apr 17, 2005)
U.S. Presses Sudan for Action on Darfur Crisis (The Washington Post, Apr 15, 2005)
$4.5 Billion in Aid Pledged For Postwar Efforts in Sudan (The Washington Post, Apr 13, 2005)
U.S. Official Ties Sudan Aid to Darfur (The Washington Post, Apr 12, 2005)
In Exploring a Solution for Darfur, Sudan Opts for Local Justice (The Washington Post, Apr 2, 2005)
Zoellick arrived here after zigzagging around Africa's largest country, at one point delayed by a fierce sandstorm. He flew to Rumbek in the south to meet with former rebel leader John Garang. Then he headed west to inspect the Darfur camp visited in June by then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
The tour followed a day of meetings with officials in Khartoum, the capital. Zoellick pressed them to quickly implement a peace accord with the south and to take concrete steps to end the attacks in Darfur, which is a separate conflict. He said he traveled to both conflicted areas to emphasize Washington's commitment to resolving the disputes.
"The gap in understanding between Washington and Khartoum and Rumbek and Darfur is enormous," Zoellick told reporters traveling with him. "This is going to be a very hard problem to address." But he said he hoped he had laid out a road map this week that might begin the process of reconciliation. And he said continued U.S. financial support for the north-south accord would hinge on demonstrable progress in Darfur.
Ten months after Powell's visit, however, the sense of permanent crisis in Darfur was striking. Last summer, Abu Shouk had 40,000 people living in fragile shelters of wood and plastic. Now, more than double that number inhabit acres of mud-brick homes. The nearby headquarters of the African Union peacekeeping mission has also expanded from a single ramshackle house to an expanse of air-conditioned trailers and huge tents.
Nearly 1.9 million people live in more than 100 camps in Sudan, and tens of thousands have died in the Darfur conflict, which broke out in early 2003 when African rebel groups attacked police and military posts. The United Nations accuses the Arab-led government of supporting militias and bombing villages to crush the rebellion.
Aid groups have complained that they face intimidation from both government and rebel forces, as well as a shortage of funds. The U.N. World Food Program announced this month that it will be forced to cut rations for more than a million people beginning in May.
When Zoellick asked Gaffar whether it was safe in Darfur, she shook her head. When he asked whether it was safe in the camp, where an aid group is training 90 women, including Gaffar, to make and sell pasta, she said it was still dangerous at night.
"All Darfur is now a camp, because there is insecurity all over Darfur," said Mohamed Mustafa El-Mekkai, a tribal leader who met with Zoellick on Thursday.
U.S. officials said they sense the government in Khartoum is "chastened," as one put it, by international condemnation of the atrocities in Darfur, including a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing possible war crimes prosecution. They said they hope the creation of a national unity government with southern rebels could lead to the granting of greater autonomy to ethnic groups throughout Sudan.
The north-south conflict, which lasted 21 years, pitted the Islamic government against the Sudan People's Liberation Army in the mostly animist and Christian south; 2 million people died, primarily from famine and disease, and 4 million were left homeless. Under the January accord, the South will be not be subject to Islamic law, known as sharia, and will have six years of self-rule, followed by a vote on whether to remain part of Sudan.
When Zoellick landed on the red dirt strip outside Rumbek, he was greeted by a band, an honor guard and several hundred people.
With the signing of the peace accord, about 600,000 people have returned to southern Sudan, and Rumbek has the feel of a boom town. Potholed tracks have been graded, and thatch-roof huts are being built. This week the market was stocked with colorful fabrics. A one-room courthouse, a jail and a small bank are located on the dirt field called Freedom Square.
But the area is still desperately poor. There is no running water, and the nearest paved road is hundreds of miles away.
Zoellick, who attended a conference in Oslo earlier this week that raised $4.5 billion to implement the peace agreement, said Garang asked him for an immediate infusion of $30 million to help build the new government.