Several recent articles reported incorrectly that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Sudan in more than 25 years. Vice President George H.W. Bush made a three-day trip to Sudan in March 1985. (Published 7/9/04)
Surrounded by thousands of chanting victims of violence, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell strode through a sprawling refugee camp in western Sudan on Wednesday and demanded that the Sudanese government ease a humanitarian crisis that has left more than 1 million people homeless.
Powell, who was accompanied by Sudan's foreign minister, called on the government to bring under control marauding Arab militias called the Janjaweed that have attacked villages, and also said it should lift restrictions hindering the delivery of food and medicine to more than 100 camps in Darfur, a region larger than France.
"Camps are good for temporary purposes, but that cannot be the answer," Powell said after a 15-minute walking tour. "We are anxious to see the end of militarism, we are anxious to see the Janjaweed brought under control and disbanded so people can leave camps in safety and go back to their homes."
Powell's trip, the first high-level U.S. visit to Sudan in 25 years, came as the United States circulated a draft U.N. resolution that would place sanctions on the militias, which are accused of killing and raping villagers during 16 months of violence. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will visit Darfur on Thursday, also to draw attention to the crisis and to urge the government to stop support of the armed groups.
After flying in his Boeing 757 from Khartoum, the capital, over the arid landscape, Powell arrived first in the town of El Fasher, where he met with representatives of relief organizations and monitors overseeing a tenuous cease-fire between rebel groups and the government. Powell then traveled over a dried mud plain in an armored Chevrolet Suburban flown here for his visit.
Under 95-degree heat and a threatening sandstorm, crowds swarmed around Powell as he walked past watering holes and fragile shelters of wood sticks and plastic sheeting or thatch. Women dressed in a melange of colors -- yellow, green, blue and purple -- repeatedly ululated, and Powell clapped his hands as the crowd clapped and cheered "Ya'eesh," Arabic for "long live."
Aid officials said this camp of 40,000 people is one of the best maintained in the region, but even here malnutrition is rampant among children. Irfan Sulejmann, an International Red Cross official, said he had helped set up the camp in April after a measles outbreak at another camp. A U.S. official said the outbreak had killed hundreds of children.
About 80 percent of people in the camp are women and children, officials said. One woman in the crowd, who gave only one name, Maghas, said her father and brothers were killed by militiamen who slit their throats and cut off their hands. She has been left to care for four sisters, she said, adding, "The government said nothing happened."
But many of the people following Powell, especially the men, appeared well dressed and adequately fed. There had been reports that the government had moved some people out of the camp and brought in more cooperative replacements to greet Powell, but he told reporters later that "whether all of the folks lived in the camp or some came in for the day isn't relevant."
Powell said he delivered a "steady message" to the foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, that the violence in the area must be addressed. "The solution has to rest with the government doing what's right," Powell said.
At a news conference with Powell on Tuesday night, Ismail played down the problems in Darfur. "They are in a state of denial, a state of avoidance," a senior State Department official traveling with Powell said. "They are trying to obfuscate and avoid any consequences."
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Powell on Tuesday told Sudan's president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, that the United States had a clear understanding of the conditions in the camps and that the Sudanese government had a responsibility to act.
Powell said representatives of relief organizations had pressed for a variety of specific actions the government could take, such as allowing aid vehicles through customs and granting visas. He also said he wanted the government to allow a more rapid buildup of the monitors of the cease-fire agreement reached in April.
The conflict began when rebel groups attacked government military installations in early 2003, saying the government had neglected the region. The government responded by bombing the area and arming the militias. The cease-fire, mediated by Sudan's western neighbor, Chad, and other African countries, has yet to take effect on the ground because the government has not reined in the militias as required in the agreement, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, an independent research organization.
Greg Elder, the chief of the French mission for Doctors Without Borders in Sudan, said the area Powell visited, North Darfur, had been better served by nongovernmental organizations than other parts of the region and was the most advanced of Darfur's three states. The worst hit is West Darfur, where Elder said civilians in camps were "very, very afraid" to move because of militia attacks.
The government has forced people to leave some camps, which Elder said has exacerbated conditions because it is too late to plant crops in many places and more difficult to distribute food to villages than a to single camp. "There is enough food," he said. "But it is the delivery that will be the problem." The rainy season, which began two days ago, will make many roads impassable and spread disease, he said. There are also not enough trucks or helicopters to deliver food, he said.
"It is too late to prevent massive losses of life," Elder said. "The best we can hope is now to mitigate those losses." Currently, about 100 to 200 people a day are dying among the 1.2 million displaced civilians. Elder said aid workers would be "lucky" to keep the death rate at 300 to 400 people a day over the next three months.
The draft U.N. resolution being circulated by the Bush administration would ban the Sudanese and other governments from arming, equipping or training the Janjaweed. It also calls for a travel ban on militia leaders and gives the Sudanese government 30 days to halt militia activities and allow unfettered access for relief officials.
If the steps against the militias fail, sanctions could be applied to "any other individuals or groups responsible for the commission of atrocities in Darfur," according to the draft. U.S. officials said that phrase was designed to warn the government that the United States may press the Security Council to impose sanctions on Sudanese government officials if the situation worsens.
Stuart Holliday, deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that the United States would wait until Powell and Annan conclude their visits before putting the resolution to a vote next week.
Before Powell departed for a conference in Indonesia, Ismail told reporters at the airport in Khartoum that government officials would "do our best" to enhance security, speed political negotiations and lift restrictions on humanitarian aid. Powell said he was pleased by the response and that the international community would be watching closely to see that the pledges were fulfilled.
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.