The Magazine

Dead End in Darfur?

Robert Zoellick's frustrating mission to end the genocide in Sudan.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By JONATHAN KARL
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Nyala, Sudan

THE NEGOTIATING TABLES had been set with green tablecloths in an open air room at one of the finest hotels in Nairobi. Each setting included a glass of water, a microphone, and a headset for translation. There were seats for the rebels, some of them dressed in desert battle fatigues and stylish camouflage turbans. There were also seats for the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, and even Canada: a coalition to warm the heart of the most fervent multilateralist. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick came in ready to deal, but by the time he took his seat, the rebels, unable to agree on who their leader was, had walked out.

And there sat Robert Zoellick, alone.

For thirty minutes he waited quietly, taking notes and, one assumes, wondering how he ended up with one of the most thankless jobs in American diplomacy: head of the U.S. effort to stop a humanitarian crisis in Sudan that the United States has labeled genocide.

The rebels were from the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) of Sudan's Darfur region. This is the antigovernment group that launched a few attacks on police stations and government warplanes in Darfur in early 2003. Those attacks provoked the massive counterattack by government forces and government-supported "Janjaweed" militias that has caused the current crisis. Zoellick believes the only way to fix Darfur is to get a peace agreement between the rebels and the government. But there's a problem: The rebels are now fighting amongst themselves, leaving two factions that claim to lead the SLA. The two groups so detest each other that they refused to be together in the same room.

And so, Robert Zoellick sat alone.

Zoellick's patience paid off, sort of. After half an hour, the rebels walked back in and took their seats. The leader of one faction declared he was simply coming back to make a statement, and then to leave again. Zoellick insisted that everyone stay until the meeting was over. He made it clear his patience was running out: "While you are bickering," he said, "your people are dying." It was the first time Zoellick became visibly angry on his latest trip to Africa, but it would not be the last. Before heading back to Washington, Zoellick would blow his top. More on that later.

Zoellick has been to Sudan four times this year. "I haven't been to any other country this year four times," he says. "I haven't even been to New York four times." Unfortunately, he has little to show for the effort. In fact, the situation in Darfur has actually gotten worse since Zoellick made his first trip here in April. In recent months, a new front has opened in the war on civilians. The people who fled to refugee camps when their villages were destroyed now find themselves under attack inside the refugee camps.

A high-ranking African official who did not want to be identified told me the rationale for this sick new phase in the war on civilians: Elements of the Sudanese security forces and the Arab militias they have armed believe the rebels are using the camps as a safe haven and a fertile recruiting ground.

After flying into Darfur with Zoellick, I broke off from his entourage to spend some time at the Kalma refugee camp. I didn't see any signs of rebel activity, but I did hear intense anger toward the government of Sudan.

A LITTLE OVER TWO YEARS AGO, Kalma was nothing more than a five-mile strip of sand. Now, over 85,000 people live here in what is the largest refugee camp, and one of the most dangerous, in Darfur. Virtually everybody I spoke to had stories about violence against people in the camp. A tribal sheikh was killed the night before I arrived; another was kidnapped that morning.

People showed me their wounds and their scars. One man showed me a bullet wound in his back, next to his shoulder blade. The bullet traveled through his body at an angle, exiting his chest. It's a minor miracle he survived; the reason he did is that the gunman, who had attacked his village and murdered the rest of his family, left him for dead.

These refugees may not have much, but they are eager to document the atrocities committed against them. Another man brought me a bag full of bullet shells. He told me where he had gathered them and said they were from an October 23 attack in which Sudanese security forces swept into Kalma and arrested the top tribal sheikh for allegedly plotting against the government.