There were only donkeys milling around in a soggy, trash-strewn lot on Thursday afternoon when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and his entourage arrived at what was supposed to be a crowded squatter camp here in the troubled Darfur region of Sudan.
Gone were the more than 1,000 residents of the Meshtel settlement. Gone as well were their makeshift dwellings. Hours before Annan's arrival, the local authorities had loaded the camp's inhabitants aboard trucks and moved them.
Aid workers who had visited the camp earlier said that before its sudden evacuation, Meshtel was a desperate place in which displaced people lived packed together in makeshift shelters on ground flooded from recent rains.
"Where are the people?" Annan was overheard asking a Sudanese official who was accompanying his tour of Darfur, the region in western Sudan where the government has been accused of unleashing armed militias on the local population to quell a rebel uprising.
Al Noor Muhammad Ibrahim, minister of social affairs for the state of North Darfur, explained that the camp on Annan's itinerary no longer existed. He said the government had relocated its residents the evening before, some time after UN officials had paid a visit at 5pm on Wednesday in preparation for a stop by Annan.
"It's not because the secretary-general of the United Nations is here that we moved them," Ibrahim insisted as incredulous UN officials looked on. Ibrahim said the conditions were too grim for the people there and that humanitarianism, not public relations, had motivated him to act. "We did not like seeing people living like that," he said.
Annan, who did not leave his vehicle, stayed silent as visibly agitated aides argued with the Sudanese authorities about the sudden relocation. The government urged Annan to visit another settlement, a nearby camp with far better conditions which US Secretary of State Colin Powell had toured Wednesday during his brief stop in Darfur.
"Of course, it is of concern," that the government had moved so many people so suddenly, Annan said later in an interview. "We are trying to sort it out."
It remained unclear whether the decision to move the displaced people was made by local authorities trying to put the best face possible on conditions here or by senior officials in the capital, Khartoum. The same camp had been closed several weeks ago because the government did not want settlements popping up so close to town. But people drifted back.
Annan bypassed the Abushouk camp, which has become a regular stop for visiting dignitaries and is known widely among aid workers as the "tourist camp" because of its relatively good condition.
In meetings with Annan earlier on Thursday, the Sudanese authorities had insisted that the situation in Darfur, which the UN has labeled the world's most severe humanitarian crisis, had been greatly overblown. The local governor, Othman Muhammad Kiber, read a long statement in Arabic to Annan, saying that the health situation was not as dire as some outsiders maintained.
"We believe this is a good chance for you to see the situation on the ground," he told Annan.
Perhaps because the government has been accused of trying to hurriedly improve the condition of camps in advance of high-profile visitors, the governor added, "We promise you, we'll be very transparent, very honest."
At the Meshtel camp that was abandoned when Annan arrived, UN officials had planned to give Annan a firsthand view of the grim conditions facing many of those driven from their villages.
The million or so displaced people of Darfur have gathered in more than 100 settlements across the vast region, which is as large as France. Aid agencies have begun offering food, water and shelter in some of the camps to try to reduce the desperation.
But there are only 300 international aid workers in Darfur, 50 of whom work for the UN, said Jan Egeland, the UN under secretary for humanitarian affairs.
The task they face is huge. A million or more residents, most of them farmers who grow their own food, now live in makeshift homes far from their land. More than 100,000 others are living in rugged refugee camps in Chad.
Even in normal years, 20,000 to 30,000 people die in Darfur from preventable diseases like malaria, cholera and diarrhea. UN officials expect far more people to die this year with residents clustered together in camps.
At least 50 camps in Darfur are receiving no aid, Egeland said. Meshtel had been one of those.
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