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In Sudan, Death and Denial

Sudanese authorities tightly restrict access to the region. But this week, NASA satellite photos still being reviewed provided a clearer view: 56,000 houses, with conical roofs known as tukels, have been destroyed in nearly 400 villages.

Aid workers predict that many more people will die, and that the U.N. World Food Program will be able to reach only 800,000 of the 1.2 million displaced people because of continuing violence. Aid workers are also concerned the rainy season will slow or stop food shipments. And waterborne diseases in crowded camps with no latrines will increase the number of deaths, they said. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimated that at least 350,000 people will die of disease and malnutrition over the next nine months.

Soldiers guard refugees at a camp outside El Fashir, where a rebellion against the government last year led to the aerial bombardment of villages. (Marcus Gyger -- AP)

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell plans to visit Darfur next week to urge the Sudanese government to disarm the Arab militias or face U.N. sanctions. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has also scheduled a visit.

Aid workers and analysts say they hope the visits will push the United States to lead an intervention that will provide airlifts of food and medicine. The U.S. military is considering sending a team to Chad to assess the feasibility of a humanitarian mission that would help refugees who have fled Sudan, State Department officials said.

Aid workers also hope the attention will remove a crucial obstacle to stopping the famine: government denial. Headlines this week in a government newspaper, Sudan Vision, read: "Situation in Darfur Under Control" and "Ethnic Cleansing Sheer Fabrication."

A U.N. report issued in May on conditions in the village of Kailek in western Darfur accused local government officials of ordering "a policy of forced starvation" by insisting that the villagers faced no problems, even as militias prevented food deliveries. Nine children in the area reportedly died of malnutrition every day.

At the same time, the government has also restricted access to humanitarian workers and journalists, granting travel permits infrequently and allowing only a small part of the affected areas to be visited. Last week, Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, said the government was holding up visas for non-U.N. relief workers and delaying the shipment of necessary equipment.

Pacing inside a Doctors Without Borders compound in El Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, Jean-Hervé Bradol, president of the group, said he was angry at the Sudanese government and the United Nations for their slow responses after officials toured feeding centers in Mornay. He puffed frantically on a cigarette, his face ghostly, his brown hair strewn wildly.

"This is the attitude that accelerates crisis. If you deny there's a problem, you don't have to address it," Bradol said. "We asked for food planning. We asked for trucks. They say they will come -- yes -- in six months, when it's too late. I am hoping I am wrong. In the meantime, thousands will die."

"By denying that there is a humanitarian crisis, the government can continue phase two of its ethnic cleansing campaign," said John Prendergast, a former Clinton adviser on Africa and an analyst for the International Crisis Group, a research organization based in Brussels. "Phase one consisted of driving people out of their villages. Phase two is designed to use starvation and disease to finish the job started by the government-supported Janjaweed militias."

"If Khartoum is pressured to remove the obstacles, and the U.S., EU and U.N. vastly increase the airlift and delivery capacity for moving humanitarian supplies, hundreds of thousands of lives will be saved," he said. "Rarely in the history of these kinds of humanitarian emergencies is the choice so stark, so simple."

Not Safe to Go Home

On a recent afternoon, the Sudanese government's commissioner general for humanitarian affairs, Sulaf Din Salih, visited Western Darfur and told aid workers that refugees should be encouraged to return home. Aid workers said that similar orders to return were being issued across Darfur.

In Zalingei, a camp about 50 miles southeast of Mornay, elders from the village of Zulu told aid workers that officials said the villagers would be paid to return home, in the hopes that others would follow. When they journeyed back, they said they found 40 corpses of their relatives rotting in the sand, the aid workers said. They returned immediately to the Zalingei camp, where a food shortage is raging.

On a recent visit to the city of El Geneina, the governor told the French Foreign Ministry's envoy, Renaud Muselier, "Everything is fine. No problem. Everyone can go home."

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