In a crowded hospital along the war-torn border in eastern Chad, 11-year-old Kaltouma shares a grim agony with her 3-year-old sister, Hilam: After the Sudanese government bombed and raided their village in Sudan's western region of Darfur last month, each little girl lost a leg.
Doctors amputated Kaltouma's leg first, removing the ruined limb above the knee. Days later, doctors conceded they couldn't save Hilam's tiny, shrapnel-ridden leg either.
From Hilam's bedside, Ashua Osman Youssouf, the girls' mother, told Reuters news agency that a third daughter was also wounded in the attack, and that their home in Darfur burned as they fled for refuge in neighboring Chad: "I don't know what to do. . . . My children are ill and all I want is for them to be better."
Anguish and despair aren't new in Darfur, where the world's worst refugee crisis heads into its sixth year. Since 2003, an estimated 300,000 Sudanese have died from war-related violence, starvation, or disease. Another 3 million have fled their homes, and many still languish in refugee camps.
The gruesome conflict began when the Sudanese government, based in Khartoum, launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against non-Arab Sudanese in the western region of Darfur. In mass attacks government-backed militia, known as the janjaweed, burned villages, killed residents, raped women, kidnapped children, and destroyed food supplies; the attacks eventually subsided, leaving devastated refugees struggling to survive.
A fresh wave of government-backed violence in Darfur last month bore an alarming resemblance to the genocidal attacks launched five years ago. The raids left many wondering if the Sudanese government is returning to its most brutal tactics of control, and if the long-promised United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force will ever arrive.
In early February, the janjaweed militia stormed into at least three towns in west Darfur, burning homes and killing residents. Sudanese army aircraft followed, dropping bombs that leveled the towns and surrounding villages.
An estimated 45,000 people fled the attacks, with some 12,000 flowing into neighboring Chad. When aid workers in Darfur reached the town of Silea a week later, its population had shrunk from 25,000 to 200.
Sudanese officials defended the attacks, saying they targeted rebel groups in the area, but residents said rebels fled the towns long before the attacks began.
The tension between rebels and the Sudanese government forms the center of the ongoing conflict in Darfur. Rebel groups have long demanded the Sudanese government more widely distribute its resources within languishing parts of the country. Sudanese officials have resisted the rebels' demands, convinced that the groups want to wrest power from the government.
Meanwhile, a small contingent of 7,000 beleaguered, mostly unarmed African Union (AU) soldiers has failed to enforce stability in the region. Last summer, the UN Security Council approved a hybrid UN-AU peacekeeping force of 26,000 troops and police in Darfur. So far, only 9,000 troops are on the ground.
Sudanese officials, who originally agreed to the peacekeeping force, have resisted its establishment by blocking some troops from entering the region and by insisting that the force be predominantly African troops.
Additionally, UN officials say that the force lacks much of the training and equipment it needs to expand, including transport helicopters to patrol a vast region with no roads.
Earlier this month, Richard Williamson, the newly appointed special US envoy to Sudan, expressed frustration at the delay and insisted it's time to stop making excuses. "Given the humanitarian suffering, given the instability and violence that's going on, it's way past time for talk," he said. "We have to take action, including accelerating deployment of Unamid troops on the ground."
To that end, Williamson announced the formation of "friends of Unamid," a group of nations that will work to provide training and equipment for the peacekeeping force. But Williamson also insisted that more peacekeeping troops could be deployed immediately, with or without additional helicopters. "Our job is to overcome challenges, some of which are artificial, some of which are legitimate," he said.
Overcoming challenges won't be easy, according to former UN Ambassador John Bolton, especially without the cooperation of the Sudanese government. "Basically the government of Sudan really has never wanted and still doesn't want a real UN peacekeeping force in Darfur," Bolton told WORLD.
He added that the mixture of African and UN troops in the peacekeeping force could present "a real prescription for trouble." "You have potentially very unclear lines of command and control, and when you get in a situation like that you always have the risk of the kind of debacle we had in Somalia in 1993," he said.
The recent government-backed violence in Darfur is another sign that the Sudanese government is digging in its heels, said Bolton, and could signal a return to earlier waves of violence. "The government of Sudan wants to consolidate its position in advance of whenever a UN force might actually be deployed, and put itself in the strongest possible posture."
Ultimately, Bolton thinks the best hope in making progress lies in pressuring the country that most heavily supports the Sudanese government: China.
China represents Sudan's biggest trading partner, and it pours billions into the oil-rich country each year. China takes as much as two-thirds of Sudan's oil exports and offers plenty in return: money, infrastructure, military equipment, and weapons used by the Sudanese army.
"If you just had China abandon its support for the government in Khartoum, I think that alone could make a real difference," said Bolton.
China is already feeling pressure from the international community, especially as it prepares to host this summer's Olympic games in Beijing. High-profile Hollywood film director Steven Spielberg quit his post as artistic adviser to the Olympic games in February, citing his concern over China's involvement in Sudan while the Darfur crisis continues.
Bolton isn't sure the UN is willing to exert the same kind of pressure: "In the culture of the UN, nobody really wants to take on China or Sudan or anybody else, so the result is literally years of delay."
On the ground in Darfur, many refugees may not have years to wait. Aid workers report treacherous conditions in getting food, water, and medical attention to thousands in camps along the border.
Beginning at a port in the Red Sea on the eastern side of Sudan, the world's longest humanitarian route stretches some 1,800 miles to the border of Chad. Despite the harsh climate and treacherous roads, the war-ravaged path isn't a no-man's land: Bandits regularly attack relief convoys and sometimes kidnap drivers.
Since the beginning of this year, bandits have hijacked 45 trucks contracted to deliver aid by the UN World Food Program (WFP). Twenty-three drivers are still missing. WFP officials say they are cutting in half their food deliveries to refugee camps because they're unable to find enough drivers willing to make the dangerous trips.
Meanwhile, the operation is running out of money to make air deliveries and says it will ground its humanitarian flights by the end of the month without an infusion of cash. "This is an unprecedented situation," said Kenro Oshidari, a WFP staffer in Sudan.
World Vision, a Christian relief organization, represents one of the largest non-governmental organizations in Darfur. The group serves about 400,000 internally displaced people within eight camps in the regions, according to Michael Arunga, communications manager for World Vision's Sudan operation.
Arunga told WORLD that his staff had remained safe so far this year. (During the last quarter, World Vision staff members were attacked three times in one week.) Despite the danger and difficulty, Arunga said the group plans to stay:"If we pulled out, the living conditions of these people would deteriorate significantly. We are committed to supporting them."