Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with women who had been raped during a campaign of ethnic violence in Sudan's Darfur region, as she sought to pressure the government to deal with a problem that has persisted despite an apparent easing of the humanitarian crisis.
Rice heard the women's stories during a 90-minute stop at this sprawling camp of mud-brick homes, a showpiece that has become a required stop for dignitaries visiting Darfur. Dozens of children greeted her with welcoming chants of "Marhab, marhab, ya Condoleezza," but other camp residents were kept outside a compound of seven huts while she spoke with aid workers and the group of women and gave a succession of interviews.
Rice met with about 15 women, who were shielded from public view in one of the huts, and emerged looking moved by their plight. She called their stories "unbelievable but . . . true," though she declined to discuss the details because she said she feared the women were vulnerable to retribution.
Surrounded by children clutching soccer balls in the blazing heat, Rice said she had a new appreciation for what she called "a devastating crisis for so many people," especially the women and children who told her "how hard life is here."
After talks earlier Thursday in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, Rice said she had obtained a commitment from senior Sudanese officials, including the president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, to implement a plan to halt sexual attacks against women. The plan, which calls for a public campaign against violence and the prosecution of rapists, was conceived by Rice's deputy, Robert B. Zoellick, who presented it to the Khartoum government during a visit two weeks ago.
Zoellick, who visited this camp in April, was told by women here that they faced the risk of attack if they left to forage for firewood, and sometimes even inside the camp at night, often by Sudanese police or military personnel who linger outside. Zoellick's plan calls for installing female security guards in the area.
But the Sudanese government has a long history of failing to meet commitments, and U.S. officials said they were skeptical that Khartoum would abide by its promise without strong international pressure. Rice said she told Sudanese officials they had a significant credibility gap and needed to demonstrate they had turned a corner.
"The Khartoum government has promised it is going to speak out about it, that it's going to recognize the problem. We will see," Rice said, adding that she told the Sudanese that the U.S. government wanted to see "actions, not words."
[In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said Thursday that although violence in Darfur has decreased in the past year, rebels and government-backed militias are still carrying out attacks, raping women and creating a climate of fear, the Associated Press reported. "Darfur may be a less active war zone than it was a year ago, but violations of human rights continue to occur frequently and active combat has been replaced by a suffocating environment of intimidation and fear, perpetuated by ever-present militia," Annan said in a report to the Security Council.]
About 1.8 million people live in camps in Sudan, while an additional 200,000 refugees are in camps over the border in Chad. The conflict in Darfur broke out in early 2003 when two African rebel groups attacked police stations and military outposts. The United Nations and human rights groups accuse the Arab-led central government of supporting militiamen, called the Janjaweed, to crush the rebellion. About 2,000 villages have been destroyed, and estimates of the deaths from disease and fighting range as high as 400,000.
Abu Shouk was home to 40,000 people when Rice's predecessor, Colin L. Powell, visited in June 2004, and officials said nearly 100,000 were here when Zoellick visited. A recent census found more than 70,000. The camp, with neat rows of mud-brick homes, numbered streets and dozens of donkeys and other animals, now appears more like a small village and greets the parade of visitors with increasing indifference.
The United States last year determined that genocide had taken place in Darfur. Bashir told Rice that the government would like to disarm the Janjaweed, but he asserted that if only the militias disarmed and not the rebels, the result would be genocide, according to a U.S. official who attended the meeting. Rice responded that the Sudanese government is responsible for security in the region.
The African Union is rapidly expanding its monitoring force in Darfur from 2,700 to 7,700 by the end of September. In an unusual operation, NATO and the European Union have agreed to airlift many of the troops to Darfur; when Rice landed at an airstrip in El Fasher, Rwandan soldiers flown in Thursday on U.S. military aircraft were on hand to greet her.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group, in a report this month, said that as many as 15,000 troops would be needed to protect villages from attack and women from rape outside the camps. Rice said that during her meetings in Khartoum, Sudanese officials said they would put no limit on how many African Union forces could be sent to Darfur.