It takes nearly four hours to walk the length of the Um Tagouk village in Sudan's western region of Darfur. The sprawling desert community is home to some 65 smaller subvillages, where thousands of Sudanese spend their days searching for water and wondering if they'll face an attack before sundown.
For many residents of Um Tagouk, along with millions more from the Darfur region, vicious attacks are a brutal reality they've already faced. Three years of bloody civil war have escalated into a calamity the United Nations calls the world's worst refugee crisis. The Bush administration calls it genocide. Since 2003, at least 300,000 Sudanese have died from war-related violence, starvation, or disease. At least 3 million more have lost their homes and livelihoods, leaving scores on the brink of starvation.
This month the severe suffering deepened: Citing a lack of funds, the UN World Food Program (WFP) began cutting in half its already-minimal food rations for nearly 3 million Sudanese living in Darfur's impoverished displacement camps. Even before the cut, many of the displaced showed early signs of severe malnutrition: orange hair and wasting.
While some in the camps manage to supplement their rations with food from other sources, many depend solely on WFP for their nutrition. "This is one of the hardest decisions I have ever made," said program chief James Morris. "Haven't the people of Darfur already suffered enough?"
The war-related suffering in Darfur began three years ago when Sudan's Islamic government, based in Khartoum, launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against non-Arabs in the west. Government-backed Arab militias, called the janjaweed, razed villages, killed residents, raped women, and plundered livestock. A handful of rebel groups fought back, and the ensuing war has left Darfur one of the most dangerous and miserable places in the world.
Talks between warring factions, along with promises of cease-fires, have borne little fruit in the past, but the international community hung its hopes on a new round of peace talks that began earlier this month in Nigeria. The negotiations quickly stalled, and the 53-nation African Union, which has been moderating these and other formal talks for two years, extended the deadline for reaching an agreement.
Sudanese government leaders initially agreed to the peace deal, but rebel groups balked at the agreement's first draft, saying it didn't guarantee autonomy and security for rebel groups, and that it didn't make provision for a minority vice president. Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Taha abruptly left the meetings and returned to Sudan, frustrated with the rebels' refusal to make a deal.
As talks degenerated, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was time for the United States to "shake the trees" and press the two sides for an agreement. Ms. Rice dispatched her deputy, Robert Zoellick, to Nigeria to stimulate progress. Mr. Zoellick, the Bush administration's point man on Sudan policy, met individually with rebel and Sudanese leaders, laboring to construct a new agreement that would appease both sides.
Two days later, rebel groups indicated they would endorse a new proposal drafted by the United States and Britain that would meet more of their conditions and set the stage for a peace accord.
The high-level involvement from the United States is one part of a chorus of international attention recently directed toward the crisis in Darfur. Thousands rallied on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in late April to ask the Bush administration to do more to help end the conflict.
Ms. Rice said that the United States has been "one of the most active states" in working to resolve the fighting, but that it needs more help from the international community, particularly China and Russia. (Both China and Russia have business interests in Sudan, and have frequently defended its government.)
Some fear that even with a peace agreement, enforcing peace in the war-ravaged region will prove a major challenge. The rebel groups are "basically being asked to trust the Sudanese government," Smith College professor and Sudan expert Eric Reeves told WORLD, "but they've already seen how untrustworthy the government is."
The UN Security Council has discussed sending troops to supplement or replace the failed peacekeeping African Union forces in Darfur, but UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told ABC News that it would take at least four to five months to get troops on the ground. He also said the UN will only send troops if the Sudanese government agrees. Meanwhile, UN member countries have expressed reluctance to send troops from their own forces. "It's an uphill, uphill battle," said Mr. Annan.
While world leaders grasp at political straws, millions of Sudanese grasp for their lives in camps and villages in Darfur. Nongovernmental and faith-based organizations work in what they say are the grimmest conditions they've faced to provide food, water sources, sanitation, and health care for the population. World Relief, a Baltimore-based Christian relief organization, has a staff of 50 working in three areas in Darfur, including the Um Tagouk village.
Mark Smith, director of disaster response for World Relief, says Um Tagouk's population has swelled with Sudanese who have fled destroyed villages and violent attacks. As displaced numbers grow, the village's resources are overwhelmed. "When you displace 2 million people it has a tremendous impact on the populations that absorb them," Mr. Smith told WORLD.
World Relief is the lead organization for a six-member consortium of faith-based groups in Darfur that are digging new wells and latrines, providing primary health care, replanting crops, and providing food supplements and fuel-efficient stoves. The work is difficult and dangerous, according to Mr. Smith: "We've had to shut down operations three times in eight months because of rising insecurity."
Bandits frequently attack supply convoys and target sites with humanitarian efforts, and Mr. Smith says the security situation "has definitely deteriorated" in recent months. Some humanitarian agencies have shut down sites in Darfur over safety concerns, and many areas of the region remain inaccessible to aid workers.
Mr. Smith says it's difficult to know why one village in the area is attacked while another is left alone, and that World Relief's best security measure is maintaining a staff primarily of Sudanese workers: "They know that trouble's coming long before we do." Despite the difficulties and danger, as well as the huge costs associated with working in the area, Mr. Smith says World Relief is committed to staying as long as possible: "We've decided that we can't leave Darfur."
While the world appropriately turns its attention to Darfur, significant conflicts in other parts of the country go unnoticed, according to Mr. Reeves. He says the Sudanese government is flagrantly violating the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2004 in southern Sudan. The agreement was designed to end government oppression in southern Sudan and to give the impoverished region a share of the country's substantial oil wealth.
Rebecca Garang, Sudan's minister of transportation and the widow of John Garang, the former leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, told WORLD earlier this year that the government wasn't meeting the CPA's terms: "We were supposed to get $1.5 billion dollars from oil so far, but as of now we've received $350 million . . . that's barely enough to fund our army."
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) this month named Sudan as a country of particular concern in its annual report outlining religious and human-rights abuses around the world. The commission highlighted the government's violations of the CPA and its systematic persecution of Christians and other non-Muslims: "In prisons and vagrant camps, non-Muslims are pressured to convert to Islam. Apostasy is legally punishable by death. Permission to build churches is routinely denied."
International attention to the conflict in the western region of Darfur serves as a convenient distraction from injustices in the south and elsewhere, says Mr. Reeves: "It seems that the international community can't walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to southern and western Sudan."
The trouble in Darfur has spilled outside Sudan's borders as well. Over the last three years, some 200,000 desperate Sudanese have slipped over their country's western border into neighboring Chad, seeking a haven from the deplorable conditions in Darfur. Nearly 18,000 have settled in Goz Amir, one of a dozen UN refugee camps near the border.
Early this month while Darfur's warring factions slogged away over a peace agreement, a group of 150 armed men swooped into a village just outside the Goz Amir camp in Chad, killing four, wounding five, and looting 1,000 head of cattle. Stunned locals identified the murderers as members of janjaweed, the vicious militia backed by the Sudanese government.
The incident was the latest in a string of violent acts in or near refugee camps in Chad. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that around 4,700 refugees were abducted from Chadian camps in March. Witnesses identified the kidnappers as either Chadian or Sudanese rebels, likely stealing men to fight for their armies. Humanitarian agencies worry that the rebel activity will make Chadian camps further targets for the janjaweed.
If refugees in Chad's camps survive the violence, they will have to face the imminent threat of disease and starvation. CNN reported that there are less than 300 doctors for a population of over 9 million in Chad, and that children are dying of treatable conditions, such as diarrhea and malnutrition.
As the fires of crisis continue to burn in Sudan and Chad, USCIRF warned that the world may need to soon look to yet another nation entangled with Sudan: "At least some elements in the Sudanese military or security services that remain in the South may be aiding the Lord's Resistance Army (see sidebar below), a Ugandan rebel group notorious for its brutal human-rights abuses."
Every night, 12-year-old Jacob packs his bag and commutes into the town of Gulu where he makes his bed on the concrete floor of a parking garage. By midnight, the ground squirms with the bodies of hundreds of other sleeping Ugandan children.
On April 29, Ashley Mason, 17, made her bed on the ground too-but she did it in her prom dress. Ms. Mason and about 200 other students from Centennial High School in Franklin, Tenn., skipped out on the after-prom to join more than 58,000 Americans in 130 cities across the country for the Global Night Commute.
The vision behind this Global Night Commute, a grass-roots effort to raise political awareness for the tens of thousands of Ugandan children who commute nightly from their homes in the countryside to sleep in the cities, began when three young filmmakers from Southern California traveled to Africa looking for a story. Toting a camera they purchased on eBay and their parents' credit cards, Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole stumbled across thousands of Ugandan children hiding in parking garages and bus stations to avoid capture by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
The LRA, a Ugandan rebel group headed by Joseph Kony, has abducted an estimated 30,000 children to fight as soldiers over the last 20 years. Those who have resisted have faced murder or mutilation. And many young girls have been forced into roles of sexual slaves. To escape these atrocities, tens of thousands of children commute nightly from their homes in the countryside into cities such as Gulu.
Challenged by the horrific stories of the children they met on the streets, Messrs. Russell, Bailey, and Poole returned to the States to piece together a documentary-Invisible Children: Rough Cut. Soon, the movie blossomed into a movement with the creation of the nonprofit, Invisible Children, Inc.
Now young people around the country are joining the effort. While 30 college students traveled across the country in RVs promoting the film, the new nonprofit organized the Bracelet Campaign to raise money by selling Ugandan bracelets made from elephant hair.
"I didn't know anything about Africa," said Emily Sernaker, a freshman at the University of Redlands. But that didn't keep her from rallying students from her high school to help her make hats, book bags, and anklets to raise money for the Ugandan children. Their motto: "Let compassion be the fashion!" Ms. Sernaker and friends have raised $35,000 over the past two years.
Next on the agenda: the Global Night Commute. "If American youth would be willing to sleep in the streets, it would show their dedication to see the war end," Mr. Bailey, one of the three filmmakers, told WORLD.
At 7 p.m. on April 29 more than 58,000 young Americans congregated in city parks to sleep and write letters to their congressmen asking them to pressure the Ugandan government to take action against the LRA.
In Washington, D.C., 1,352 showed up. New York City-1,005. Los Angeles-1,958. Chicago-1,892.
In Topeka, Kan., Sen. Sam Brownback, who visited Uganda in 2004 to witness the horrors firsthand, marched with 333 others from Washburn University to the State Capitol.
When Mike Lister, a senior at Centennial High School in Franklin, Tenn., first heard about the Global Night Commute two months ago, he was excited to help. But when he found out that the event fell on the same night as Centennial's prom, he faced a dilemma. "My first thought was, 'April 29th-Oh no!'" he said. But he and 199 prom-goers decided they could do both.
"It's our prom, but we can do this," Ms. Mason said. After the prom ended at 11 p.m., the students, some still wearing their prom attire, commuted to a hillside park in Franklin to join more than 2,500 others. Before the event Mr. Lister told WORLD the prospect of 2,000 teenagers at the rally "makes me all giddy inside."