1 July 2004 United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today promised black Africans in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region that they will not be forced to return to their homes - where they have faced murderous attacks from Arab militias - until their security can be guaranteed.
Women residents of a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in North Darfur State began applauding after Mr. Annan - who sat down with senior aides to talk privately with them after asking security staff and Sudanese authorities to stay away - made his pledge that no one will have to go home unless they have adequate protection.
During his first trip to Darfur, described by UN officials recently as the scene of the world's worst humanitarian crisis, Mr. Annan visited three IDP camps to see first-hand what has happened to the victims of the militia attacks.
Later Mr. Annan stressed how important it was to find a political solution to the troubles in Darfur. "Otherwise, the drama that we are now living is nothing compared to what will come next," he said at a press conference in the capital of neighbouring Chad, N'Djamena.
The civil conflict "could become a regional drama," he warned.
In the Zam Zam camp in North Darfur, currently home to about 12,000 people, Mr. Annan spoke to a group of women who recounted a series of deadly attacks on their villages by Janjaweed militias, bands of Arab fighters armed or recruited by the Sudanese Government.
UN Radio producer Ben Malor, who is travelling with the Secretary-General, said hundreds of women approached the travelling party to tell them about the activities of the Janjaweed.
"I was personally surrounded by more than 30 women and each one of them [was] excited to talk to us to stress the fact that their husbands had been killed," Mr. Malor said.
Earlier, while sitting under a thorn tree at Zam Zam with about a dozen elders, Mr. Annan heard the men describe why they were still too afraid to return to their homes.
They also outlined the difficulties of life in Zam Zam, where residents generally have to make do with shelters built with plastic sheeting.
Two UN human rights reports released in May found that the Janjaweed have committed numerous human rights abuses, including murders, rapes and the ransacking and destruction of villages.
A UN spokesman said Mr. Annan also toured the IDP camp at Abu Shouk, which is considered well-organized, houses about 40,000 people and is frequently shown to international visitors.
But when he arrived at another camp at Meshtel, there were only a few mules left at the camp. As recently as yesterday evening, more than 1,000 families were seen living there.
A Sudanese Government official told the UN officials that the camp's residents had been transferred to a better location. For several months Meshtel has not been considered a viable site for a camp.
But the UN spokesman said that humanitarian workers operating in Darfur were stunned by the sudden disappearance of so many people.
The Governor of North Darfur, Osman Yousif Kibir, also briefed the Secretary-General on the situation in the region and the efforts he said the Sudanese authorities were making to end the fighting.
Later Mr. Annan was briefed by African Union military observers who are being deployed to the region to monitor a ceasefire signed in April. He then travelled to N’Djamena for talks with President Idriss Deby and a briefing by local UN staff.
During a press conference with Mr. Deby, Mr. Annan said it was essential that the international community step up its humanitarian assistance to Darfur and Chad.
UN agencies estimate that more than a million people have become internally displaced and at least another 150,000 others are refugees in Chad since fighting broke out early last year between Sudanese Government, allied militias and two rebel groups.
Aid workers say they have hampered in their attempts to bring relief to civilians in Darfur - an arid, impoverished region which is roughly the size of France - because of obstructions from government officials and last month's onset of the annual rainy season.
Tomorrow Mr. Annan and his aides are scheduled to visit a refugee camp in Chad's east before returning to Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, for a meeting with President Omer Al Bashir.
The Secretary-General is travelling to Sudan and Chad with Jan Egeland, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs; Jan Pronk, his Special Representative for Sudan; and Mohamed Sahnoun, his Special Adviser for Africa.