It is, according to one UN official, the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world right now. Some 810,000 African tribes- people in the Darfur region of western Sudan have fled their homes. They're trying to escape what may be a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Arab militias, which are apparently backed by Sudan's government. They're struggling through blazing days and frigid nights in hilly terrain at the edge of the Sahara.
Yet, even as Darfur's warring parties agreed this week to start peace talks, it's not clear how the international community can respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. The issue is particularly poignant, observers say, because the 10th anniversary of Rwanda's genocide - and the world's weak response to it - is just two weeks away.
At least three dilemmas complicate the global reaction to Darfur, experts say.
First: Access by aid workers. Not only is Darfur still a war zone, but bandits abound, making aid-worker safety a big concern. Furthermore, Sudan's government - for apparent political reasons - is reluctant to let in aid workers. Officials recently took three weeks, for instance, to grant approval for a set of United Nations satellite phones to be taken to the region.
Second: How much aid to provide. If Darfur's displaced legions get too many blankets or medicine kits they're often targeted by Arab militias, who kill and rape as they steal the goods. Some wanderers have refused aid rather than risk attack. But without enough water, food, and supplies, many may perish.
Third: Peace talks in Sudan's other war - a 20-year conflict between north and south - are gaining momentum. President Bush this week again urged the government to accept a deal. But observers worry the US may give Sudan's leaders a pass on Darfur to ensure that a north-south deal is struck.
All this is perhaps why the United Nations coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, is ratcheting up calls for help. "It's an organized campaign to rid an entire area of a group of people," he says speaking to the Monitor by phone from Khartoum, and that means "it fits the definition of 'ethnic cleansing.' " It's a dramatic term that hasn't been applied to Darfur before. Furthermore, he says, "The government has a close knowledge of what's going on - and can influence the militia."
Dr. Kapila adds that the militia's tactics - regular rape and brutal killings - are reminiscent of Rwanda's genocide in 1994. "The lesson we learned from Rwanda is to take note of these things early and to act to stop them," he says. Clearly, the scale is different, however. Some 800,000 to 1 million were killed in Rwanda. The UN estimates 10,000 civilians have died in the Darfur conflict so far. Some 110,000, meanwhile, have fled into neighboring Chad.
The government has vehemently denied Kapila's accusations, reportedly calling them a "heap of lies." The Humanitarian Affairs department says it has facilitated "noticeable stability and the return of tens of thousands of displaced persons and refugees," the Associated Press reported.
Other observers don't use Kapila's words but agree the situation is grave. At the very least, the regime is blocking aid and starving its own people - as well as giving "support and impunity" to Arab militias carrying out vicious attacks, says John Prendergast, an Africa expert at the International Crisis Group in Washington.
The Darfur war boils down to this: African tribes have long been at odds with Arab groups in the region over access to good land. Then, last year, two armed African groups began a rebellion against the Khartoum regime. The government responded by apparently giving military support to Arab militias. There are reports of Sudanese military planes bombing villages, after which Arab militias go in and rape and kill survivors.
Such harsh tactics are used perhaps because the government sees Darfur as a threat to its very existence for two reasons.
First, one rebel group - the Justice and Equality Movement - apparently has ties to Hassan Turabi, a powerful Muslim cleric and regime critic in Khartoum. The regime sees Darfur "as a back-door way for Turabi" to wreak political havoc, says Mr. Prendergast.
Second, there's a risk that north- south peace talks will fail. If so, Darfur groups could link up with southern and eastern rebels. "That could create a solid military threat" to Khartoum "from five or six directions," says Prendergast.
This fear combines with the fact that rebel groups draw strong support - and some fighters - from Darfur's local civilian populations. This is why civilians are regularly targeted.
And it explains the government's reluctance to allow humanitarian groups into the region.
"International organizations don't distinguish between rebels and civilians," says Prof. Abdul-Rahim Ali Mohammed Ibrahim, head of the Khartoum International Institute of Arabic Language who speaks regularly with government officials. He says they worry that aid groups will inadvertently - or even consciously - strengthen rebel forces. "In the south, for instance, more than one aid group was involved in giving military help" to rebels, he says, a charge aid groups deny.
Meanwhile, the UN's Kapila, who is leaving his post next week, says he has only 55 people in Darfur to deal with the displaced masses. He wants to put at least another 30 people in, but says the government is resisting.
The UN and other groups have been able to get some aid into Darfur. On March 16, the World Food Program, for instance, delivered food to some 20,000 displaced people in southern Darfur. But Kapila says the amounts have been not nearly sufficient. And he notes that only three or four aid groups are operating on the ground - and that the International Red Cross has been kept out of the area.
Leo Roozendaal, head of the aid group CARE in Sudan, says he wants to put 30 people on the ground in Darfur. But a combination of security concerns and bureaucratic resistance has prevented him from doing so thus far. He hopes to have them in place in the next month before annual torrential rains begin.
But even if aid groups do increase delivery, displaced people may not accept the help lest they become even bigger targets of the militias.
"They say, 'Don't give us too much,' or, 'Don't give it to us now,' " says Kapila.
There are signs, however, of the government bowing to international pressure. Peace talks between the rebel groups and the government are scheduled to resume Friday in Ndjamena, Chad, after reaching a stalemate last December.