Over and over, terrified villagers told the same story Thursday as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan got a firsthand look at the crisis engulfing Sudan's embattled Darfur region.
Annan, accompanied by government ministers and senior U.N. staff, toured one of the 137 camps where some of the more than 1 million people chased from their homes over the past 16 months have sought shelter. He has suggested international troops could be sent to Darfur if the situation does not improve.
Human rights groups accuse the Sudanese government of backing militias known as the Janjaweed, which are drawn from the region's Arab herders, in a campaign to forcibly remove African farmers from the vast, western region, where they have coexisted, and in some cases intermarried, for centuries.
The government denies any complicity in the militia attacks and says the warring sides are clashing over land and scarce water resources.
"The government did not use the Janjaweed or ask them to come in (the conflict)," Osman Keber, governor of North Darfur, told Annan on Thursday. "We do not deny that they did a lot of atrocities, but they came by their own agenda."
He said the rebels are also committing abuses and reiterated the government's pledge to improve security and disarm all armed groups.
The United States called on the United Nations to impose an arms embargo and travel ban on the Arab militias in a draft resolution submitted Wednesday to coincide with a visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell to Darfur.
Powell presented the Sudanese government with a timetable to implement its promises to disarm the militias and lift restrictions on humanitarian workers. Powell also gave the government a timetable to negotiate a settlement to the 16-month uprising in Darfur.
U.N. officials call the situation in Darfur the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and in a meeting with Sudanese Cabinet ministers Wednesday, Annan said he wanted to see progress in the next 24-48 hours in resolving the conflict, which has killed up to 30,000 people and left some 2 million in desperate need of aid.
"Everyone remembers what happened in Rwanda ten years ago and no official of any administration wants another Rwanda," reports CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson.
Dr. David Nabarro, head of the World Health Organization's crisis operations, said Thursday the displaced, who often lack access to clean drinking water or sanitation, could be hit hard by epidemics of diarrhea, cholera, dysentery and malaria.
"We anticipate that if things go ahead as they are at this moment, 10,000 people will die in the next month," Nabarro told reporters in Geneva after returning from a weeklong mission to Darfur.
Sitting on mats shaded by trees, Annan talked with camp elders and a group of women, and listened to them describe waves of attacks that aid workers have likened to ethnic cleansing.
"First the planes were flying over us and bombing us. Then the Janjaweed came," said a 20-year-old woman, who gave her name only as Zahara. "They started to shoot and burn. They took all our belongings. They took men and slit their throats with swords. The women they took as concubines."
Zahara, a mother of four, lost her parents in the panic and doesn't know what's become of them. She is now among the estimated 12,000 people living in makeshift shelters of branches and plastic sheeting at Zam Zam camp, just south of the North Darfur town of al-Fasher.
Here, at least, there have been no attacks, residents said. But women say they don't dare venture out of the camp for fear of running into the militias they say regularly abduct and rape African women and girls.
International concern has focused on the conflict in western Sahara even as Sudan's 37-year-long civil war — which may have claimed 2 million lives, according to the State Department — wound down.
The Bush administration has pressed for a resolution to that conflict between the government and non-Arab rebels in the south, and negotiations for a final ceasefire were scheduled for late June.