WESTERN DARFUR, Sudan – It's the world's worst humanitarian crisis. And it’s bringing out the worst in people.
At an 80,000-person refugee camp in Darfur (search), refugees took revenge on the Sudanese government official in charge of the camp that is now their home, blaming him for the government's support of a brutal militia called the Janjaweed (search).
There's a reason for this kind of anger. Since early 2003, some 50,000 black Africans have died while 1.5 million more fled the fighting to stay in squalid refugee camps. Disease and malnutrition are taking even more lives.
So when Andrew Natsios, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (search) (USAID), sought last month to listen to the refugees’ concerns, that anger turned into rage.
A riot broke out when Natsios asked about attacks they suffered by the Janjaweed fighters. The refugees spoke of family members being murdered and villages being torched.
Under a mercilessly hot sun, Natsios asked a young boy, "Is there a school in your village?" The boy, speaking in Arabic, said no and shook his head. Tribal elders watched and listened closely as the boy spoke.
"Were there attacks on your village?" Natsios asked.
"Yes," the boy replied through a translator. "I don't know who [did it] but I believe it was the government."
"Did any of your family members die?" Natsios asked. The boy said his 16-year-old brother and a younger sister were killed and added that his father was also dead. His mother was alive and in the camp.
Refugees who were gathered around began to grow increasingly tense and others stood up wanting to tell their stories. Natsios tried to calm people down — "shhhh," he said. The Sudanese government official looked on, watching the situation develop.
As other refugees told similar stories, the government official grimaced. He tried to stop the refugees from talking, literally telling them to "shut up."
The crowd turned on him, chasing and beating him with sticks, pelting him with stones, even throwing knives. Refugees screamed "Janjaweed," labeling him the same way they label their attackers. The official stumbled to the ground, taking more blows for nearly five minutes. He curled up in the fetal position during much of his beating. Blood poured from the back of his head.
Natsios tried to stop the attack, repeatedly yelling "no more." Eventually, the attackers backed off. Had Natsios not stepped in, the official could have been killed.
U.S. Assigns Blame
The U.S. government has become increasingly concerned about the situation in Sudan, to the point of identifying what’s happening in the African nation as “genocide.”
"Genocide has been committed in Darfur and the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bare responsibility," Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) told Congress on Sept. 9.
Hundreds of torched villages show a scorched-earth campaign by the Islamic fundamentalist government and the Janjaweed militia.
Villagers in the town of Debanaya told FOX News that a little less than a year ago the Janjaweed drove into town on 30 trucks accompanied by Sudanese soldiers. Together, they ambushed a village in a remote part of Darfur.
First, they took livestock, loading them on the trucks. Then they burned down part of the town including people's homes so that the Janjaweed could take the land. In the village, eight people died and another 20 were hurt. Survivors fled into the nearby mountains. Eventually, they made their way to some of the more than 100 refugee camps spread throughout Darfur.
In the camps, refugee children draw the horrors they've witnessed — murdered parents and siblings, homes set aflame, livestock stolen. Some black Africans — children 10 or younger among them — took up arms to fight back but the government hit even harder, supplying weapons to the Janjaweed.
In a rebel town in north Darfur, a boy who lost both his parents said through a translator that he joined the Sudanese Liberation Army (search) a year ago. The boy was half my size, but held an AK-47 and stood up straight just like a soldier.
Deep in the heart of rebel territory, FOX News traveled with the Sudanese Liberation Army. Unlike the villagers, these men have truly gone up against the Sudanese government, fighting for economic opportunity from the capital in Khartoum.
The rebel soldiers believe the Arab government wants to exterminate them because they're black Africans. They drove us to a field where we stood next to a crater 50 feet in diameter. The rebels say that the government tried to bomb their town last year but missed, instead hitting a field a half-mile from town. They also showed us what they said was an unexploded ordnance, a metal-looking box half buried in the sand.
But despite such reports, Sudan's vice president accuses the media of exaggerating the entire crisis in Darfur.
"The situation in Darfur is far from being described as genocide," Sudanese First Vice President Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha told FOX News during an interview at his palace in Khartoum.
Instead, Taha said the United States and other countries want to topple his country’s Islamic government. He even accused the United States of arming the rebels.
John Danforth, U.S. representative to the United Nations and former special envoy to Sudan, told FOX News that the claim was "baloney."
Whatever the truth, refugees suffer, terrified to return home. Women are afraid even to set foot outside of the camps, fearing beatings and rapes by lurking Janjaweed fighters.
The United States, the African Union and other countries are trying to broker peace between rebels and the government — and end a viciously murderous campaign. Human rights groups say if the situation doesn't improve, 300,000 people could die by the end of 2004.
Heather Nauert currently serves as a news anchor for FOX News Channel (FNC) and also provides viewers with the top headlines of the day during FOX & Friends (weekdays 6-9AM/ET). Nauert originally joined FNC in 1998 and rejoined as an anchor in 2007.