ABU SHOUK, Sudan
The crisis in Western Sudan's Darfur region, where African rebel groups have battled militia supported by the Arab-led government since 2003, has left as many as 400,000 people dead and about 2 million homeless. Many of the displaced have been herded into more than 100 camps across the region, an area the size of France.
One of these camp keeps getting high-level American visitors. It's called Abu Shouk. It's conveniently located near the airport at El Fasher, which has a landing strip long enough to accommodate the Boeing 757 jet used by the U.S. secretary of state. A sign on the gate to the airport says it all: "Very Important Persons Only."
The camp has so many visitors that a small mall of ersatz camp life, picture-ready for when visitors arrive, has been created in a compound of seven thatched huts. To demonstrate how they can earn a living, women make pasta on Italian machines in one hut. In another, a few dozen children and adults are taught folklore by a teacher scrawling Arabic on a chalkboard. The Khartoum government has even been known to clear out troublemakers before dignitaries arrive, replacing them with well-dressed substitutes.
Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state, made the first pilgrimage here in 2004, when the camp held 40,000 people in makeshift tents. Now it holds about double that number, in increasingly permanent-looking brick homes. I'm the only reporter to have been to the camp with three top officials -- Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick and, this past week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But while the senior officials change, there's a certain sameness to the events at this perennial photo-op location -- the same visuals, same points, same war.
Before her arrival at Abu Shouk, Rice defended the Bush administration's response to the situation in Darfur as more than campaign-style optics. She said that U.S. efforts had averted a humanitarian disaster, helped bolster the number of African Union troops monitoring the region and led to a peace deal for a separate north-south conflict that could serve as a model for Darfur. During her visit, Rice met privately with women who had been raped by Sudanese militia, attempting to draw attention to that issue.
It's true that sometimes even superficial events can have an impact. Aid workers said Powell's brief stop helped force the Sudanese government to end restrictions on aid convoys. But the sameness of these events underscores how they are designed mainly for the pictures and images. Policy implementation is another matter.
For the people who live here, a photo op just doesn't do much to end the suffering.
-- Glenn Kessler, Washington Post Staff Writer
COLIN L. POWELL
Date of visit: June 30, 2004
Arrival vehicle: An armored SUV with District plates
Duration: 20 minutes
Amount of that time spent in press interviews: None
Key visual: Swarming crowds chanting "Ya'eesh," Arabic for "long live."
Key quote: "Camps are good for temporary purposes but that cannot be the answer."
Number of network correspondents: One
Return visits since: None
ROBERT B. ZOELLICK
Date of visit: April 15, 2005
Arrival vehicle: A local jeep
Duration: 75 minutes
Amount of that time spent in press interviews: 11 minutes
Key visual: Watching the pasta-making
Key quote: "This has been a problem that left tens of thousands of people dying, so we have to solve the problem."
Number of network correspondents: One
Return visits since: Two, to other camps in Darfur -- and both without media
Date of visit: July 21, 2005
Arrival vehicle: An armored SUV -- with its plates removed
Duration: 90 minutes
Amount of that time spent in press interviews: 25 minutes
Key visual: Children chanting "Marhab, marhab, ya Condoleezza!" ("Welcome, welcome, oh Condoleezza!")
Key quote: "We've got to make every effort because these children need to grow up at home, not in a refugee camp."
Number of network correspondents: Four
Return visits since: Yet to be determined