On a stretch of the austere desert in Chad, just across the border from the Darfur region of Sudan, signs of tragedy came into full view: tattered clothing caught on the branches of thornbushes, carcasses of camels and goats that died on the long journey out.
Then the people began to appear: haggard young girls with siblings on their backs, old men riding atop donkeys piled high with cooking pots, water jugs and mats, and elderly grandmothers, some with gunshot wounds, being pushed through the sand in wheelbarrows.
And then: a group of female teachers, squatting in a dry riverbed, trying to find shelter from sandstorms that were building over the horizon and turning the air into a wall of thick, orange dust.
It was a boiling-hot day in February 2004, and it was my first trip to investigate what were then vague reports of refugees streaming across the desolate border.
A woman came out from under some trees in the riverbed to greet me. Her name was Armani Tinjany, and she was a beautiful 29-year-old Sudanese teacher, tall and gracious in a flowing orange polka-dot dress tied to her thin waist.
She grabbed my hand and in clear English told me she had a college degree and taught Arabic and agriculture to high school students. She had lived a comfortable life with her family in a village of stone compounds.
A month before I met her, her village was attacked by Arab militias known as the Janjaweed -- slang for devils on horseback. The militiamen galloped into town, burned homes and buildings, raped women and killed dozens of men while government aircraft bombed the area. The assault was a strike back at rebels who had risen up against the Arab-led government, claming economic and political discrimination.
In her rush to leave, Tinjany left her parents and her husband behind. Were they alive? She did not know.
"Are they going to leave us like this forever?" she asked. "My life, as I knew it, is finished."
She answered all my questions slowly, and often referred to a wrinkled notebook in which she had recorded the atrocities. Even with people out to kill her entire family and her tribe, she softly apologized for not being able to offer me tea.
U.N.: 'Our worst nightmare'
At that time, Darfur was just another confusing African conflict. Today, it is known as the site of the first genocide of the 21st century, a human catastrophe that has pushed nearly 2.5 million people off their land and into camp cities, some housing as many as 80,000 people.
Misery intensified, and dignity vanished. I once watched a camp guard swat Tinjany with sticks as he pushed refugees into a line for food being handed out by U.N. aid workers.
Currently, Hollywood celebrities, college students, religious leaders and experts champion the plight of the Darfur victims. But despite the attention, the United Nations has been unable to raise enough money to support its operations in Sudan. On Friday, the U.N. World Food Program announced that it had received only 32 percent of its appeal for $746 million for its operations in Sudan, and that food rations to the camps would be cut in half.
"It's really our worst nightmare," said Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the U.N. agency, who was with me during one of my first trips into Sudan. Behind the headlines, he said, there is little hope.
The crisis is getting wide and more complicated.
The mayhem has spread into Chad, where 60,000 Chadians have been forced from their homes by incursions by the Janjaweed, and by a dozen different Chadian rebel groups backed by Sudan, as well as by various bandits and mercenaries.
In another, lesser-known example of the conflict's spillover, thousands of people in the Central African Republic are being displaced by violence as the various militias backed by the Sudanese government use the lawless area to transport weapons.
The Darfur rebel groups, who once fought the government, are now fighting each other and appear less willing to compromise at peace talks underway in Nigeria.
'Does anyone care about us?'
I often think about how Tinjany was still hopeful, during my first visit to the region. She wrote letter after letter, to leaders in Britain, in Chad, to the president of the United States.
"We have nothing here," she wrote. "Will we just rot here like our animals have? We are all Muslims. We are all black. Does anyone care about us?"
She turned to me and said: "I'll keep writing. You are welcome to bring my news."
Soon after I met Tinjany in Chad, I found myself in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, trying to get a travel permit from the Information Ministry. No Western reporter had yet been let into government-controlled Darfur. Days turned into six weeks as I waited for permission to travel.
The young workers at the ministry often warned me: "Don't tarnish the name of the Sudan." But they were always polite, saying that perhaps tomorrow I would receive the permit.
The wait eventually paid off.
I made trips with a parade of officials and celebrities -- I once traveled with American actress Mia Farrow and her son Seamus. And I knew that back in the United States, their trip brought more attention to the issue than any newspaper story did.
The second time I saw Tinjany was in July 2004, in the crowded Oure Cassoni refugee camp near where I had met her months earlier. She was no longer writing letters.
She was now living in a tent provided by the United Nations. She nervously swept her new home, trying to keep it tidy in the fetid and muddy labyrinth of camp life.
She had lost a lot of weight, and her collarbones poked through the same orange
polka-dotted dress. She said she had suffered from malaria and stomach worms.
She was depressed and had lost hope, but nonetheless was trying to open a school for the children in the camp.
"The Sudanese children will want to know why they are living in Chad," she said.
Some of her friends had left for Khartoum or Kenya, leaving behind the often-humiliating and hardscrabble life of refugees. But she stayed behind.
She cried in front of me, and she told me I reminded her of just how long she had been away from her home.
"Will we ever get our lives back?" she asked me.
In an audiotape broadcast last week, Osama bin Laden urged Muslims to rise up in protest of any U.N. or NATO intervention.
My e-mail in-box immediately was filled with outraged messages from Darfurians who had kept in touch and lived in cities around Sudan.
"I believe -- as many of my fellow Darfurians do -- bin Laden is very mistaken by calling for Jihad in Darfur," Ahmad Shugar, a Darfur leader, wrote in an e-mail. ". . . We are all Muslims here. It is really humiliating when a fellow Muslim looks down on you and calls for jihad against you."
And just as with Tinjany, I could do nothing but ask to use his comments in a story.
Emily Wax is the Nairobi bureau chief for The Washington Post. She has traveled to Sudan more than 12 times since the Darfur conflict began.