Powell looks at Sudan, hoping world will, too

Posted in Other | 01-Jul-04 | Author: Christopher Marquis| Source: The New York Times

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited a refugee camp of some 40,000 people in the northern Darfur region of Sudan Wednesday after warning the Sudanese government to ease the nation's refugee crisis.
EL FASHER, Sudan Thousands of refugees swept like water across a sandy plain to meet the American secretary of state, Colin Powell, and his entourage on Wednesday at a camp packed with people who have fled the ethnic violence of Sudan's western Darfur region. They filled the air with applause and trills.

Youths eager for a glimpse of Powell climbed atop pallets of American-donated wheat and vegetable oil for a better vantage, only to be shooed off by a soldier flailing a whip. Women draped in veils herded wide-eyed children chasing after the spectacle.

Young men - survivors in an ethnic war that has unleashed the power of the mostly Arab government and their allies against black African rebels and their people - sidled up to American reporters to confide their fear. Powell's visit seemed to offer a momentary shield from government intimidation.

"We want this government out," whispered one man, who said he had lost 14 relatives to the violence. "They kill our families." He disappeared as quickly as he had surfaced. "They watch me," he said before melting into the crowd.

Powell, the highest-ranking American official to visit this country in decades, huddled under a tent, buzzed by flies, while his traveling companion, the Sudanese foreign minister, stood by, perspiring in a dress shirt. Relief workers emphasized the need for more tents and water in the outskirts of the camp, a village erected virtually overnight to help those who had fled or lost their homes to violence.

"The people in this camp are being given hope as well as sustenance," Powell said. But he added, "We don't want them to stay in camps; we all want them to return to their homes."

The camp, Abushouk, was built within the past two months on the outskirts of El Fasher and is considered to be among the best in the Darfur region, with functioning relief organizations and few signs of hunger. Security concerns kept Powell from viewing more desperate camps - there are 137 of them in a region the size of France - but even Abushouk, with a population of 40,000, had recently been affected by a recent outbreak of measles.

Waleed Yousif, a physician in the camp, said many of the children were suffering from gastrointestinal problems. But he said there was no starvation. "Now the government is trying to do its best to help the people," he said. "There's international pressure to do something for the refugees."

Powell said he was not dissuaded in his sense of urgency over the humanitarian crisis in Darfur by his visit here, which was accompanied by squads of government soldiers in open trucks with mounted machine guns. He met with tribal leaders, members of a cease-fire monitoring group of the African Union, relief groups and UN staff.

"Many camps don't have the same degree of access" as Abushouk, Powell said on his flight back to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. He expressed special concern for Darfur countryside residents whose crops have been destroyed by the government-backed militiamen known as the janjaweed, who continue to roam areas throughout the west and into neighboring Chad.

"The reason security is so important," Powell said, "is so that we can get people moving back home again voluntarily, not forcibly, and start to rebuild their lives and put crops in the ground, or there won't be crops to harvest the next harvesting season, and then the requirement for international aid and camps becomes even greater."

Powell said his visit was largely to stir the international community to put pressure on Khartoum officials, who, his aides say, have minimized the scope of the crisis. For example, the foreign minister, Mostafa Osman Ismail, denied there was famine in the country.

The Bush administration began circulating a text among members of the Security Council in an effort to build international support for Darfur. Officials declined to say whether the proposed resolution foresees imposing additional sanctions against Khartoum, possibly targeting its political leaders.

The United States, which designates Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, already has one of the most punitive regimes against the government, with 12 sets of sanctions in place. The sanctions bar commercial transactions, military sales, investment - including investment in the critical area of oil exploitation - and a requirement that Washington actively oppose international loans to Khartoum.

Sudanese officials are eager to improve relations with Washington. Powell's visit was greeted with warm articles in the local news media, even as newspapers criticized what they consider exaggerated accounts in foreign newspapers. International monitors of a regional cease-fire gave Powell conflicting reports Wednesday about the durability of an agreement signed in April.

Members of the Sudanese Liberation Army, one of the rebel groups based here, said that just two days ago a government plane had bombed a camp near Kutum, north of here, and the janjaweed militias had followed with an attack. But the chairman of the cease-fire commission, Brigadier General Festus Okonkwo, said he had no confirmed violations in recent days.

Powell said that restoring security was his primary concern followed by the need to disarm the militias, which the government has publicly disavowed.

With the rainy season beginning, relief workers say that they will have difficulty distributing aid. On average, they said, it takes a truck loaded with food three weeks to reach points in Darfur from Sudan's main port. Powell said Wednesday that his goal was to let villagers return home as soon as they can.