Refugees in Chad have reported arbitrary killings and rape
It is being called the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Arab militia men have driven an estimate one million black Sudanese villagers from their homes and there have been massacres on an unknown scale.
The crisis in the Darfur region of western Sudan has finally caught the world's attention.
Darfur feels like the end of the earth. Desert winds of the Sahara blow and cause the sands to swirl high, choking anyone in their path.
They cloud the barren landscape with an opaque curtain that turns any inhabitants into shadows that can sometimes barely be made out.
We were travelling towards Darfur through roads of deep sand, over land in the remote reaches of eastern Chad, where often there was no road at all.
The killers tore Fadidja's clothes off, beat her, broke her arm and then raped her, one by one
At a refugee camp near the Sudanese border we began to talk to those who had fled Darfur and I soon realised that these were not normal stories of war.
Fadidja Isaac Ali, 35 years old and from a town in Darfur called Mulli, sat before me with her baby in her arms as she talked. She had been shopping at the market in her village when the gunmen came.
"The bullets began to fly, people fell, people ran. The evil men had come", she said.
"Who are the evil men?", I asked. "The Janjaweed", she said.
On that day in Mullis market, she said, 55 people were massacred. The killers found that Fadidja had survived and three of them took her away, tore her clothes off, beat her, broke her arm and then raped her, one by one.
All the stories we heard were similar. No-one in the refugee camps spoke of gun battles between soldiers, only of massacres of civilians by the Janjaweed militia - Arab militiamen often seen fighting with the Sudanese government - or of massacres resulting from aerial bombings of villages by Sudanese government planes.
Every time I asked why they thought this was being done to them, they said the same thing: "It is because we are black."
It may seem strange that here in the middle of Africa, one type of black person - they call themselves Arabs - would drive another blacker type of person from their homes.
But then remember, the Hutus massacred the Tutsis in Rwanda. And whites ethnically cleansed whites in Bosnia.
Ethnic cleansing always seems to be rooted in dark historical feuds and it is the same here.
For years there have been tensions between the blacks and Arabs of Darfur over cattle, and now Sudan's government feels threatened by the emergence of rebel groups in the area.
Living with fear
For several days we journeyed on until we reached a tiny village on the border with Darfur. There we met the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) rebels, who try to defend the blacks of Darfur.
The commander, Hamis, was in a small mud hut surrounded by sandbags. He was charging his satellite phone from a homemade wooden box of DD batteries, and two 20-year-old M3 rifles were stacked by his bed.
The SLA took up arms in 2003
We set off on foot to cross the border into Sudan and into what must be the world's most remote war zone on the edge of the Sahara... in 50 degree heat. My head was thumping from the sun.
Eventually we entered a grove of mango trees.
Hidden inside were about 30 SLA soldiers. Some were uniformed, some not.
One wore a Tommy Hilfiger jacket. They wore amulets on their heads, containing little Muslim prayer books, and each had an old automatic weapon.
Then came a distant drone. The young soldiers went quiet, eyes to the sky.
Above were government Antonovs capable of carrying a massive amount of explosives.
Had the planes bombed we would have been obliterated. I felt strangely cold, and the sickly feeling of fear began to creep in.
This is what it must feel like to be a villager in Darfur.
The planes continued north, thank God.
The men offered us horses for the rest of the journey and we rode through the heat of the day into the heart of Darfur.
The rebels fanned out in front of us in case the Janjaweed militia were in the area. But it was silent here.
Very few journalists have been able to reach Darfur
The villagers had already left or been killed.
The villages were burnt, their schools were empty, the books torn up, and the wells had been destroyed so no-one could come back.
There were abandoned shoes and cooking pots. The place resounded with its own emptiness.
I had spent weeks before my trip trying to find a way of accessing an area nearby, from where stories were filtering out of execution-style massacres.
But it was simply too dangerous to go there. So I had asked if an eyewitness to a massacre could get here to meet us.
The message miraculously had travelled and one came.
Abdul was from a town called Deliege, where more than 100 black men, he said, were taken off in government trucks to a valley.
Abdul says he heard the guns when more than 70 of them were executed by a bullet to the back of the head.
He carried a list of those who were killed at other similar massacres nearby. The killings are still going on now.
There was another massacre just days ago.
Ethnic cleansing in its rawest form is rampaging unchecked in Darfur.
We returned to the mango tree rebel base late at night, and the rebels lit a fire and made tea.
Then they escorted us back out into the desert and under the immense black sky and a vast array of stars we crossed back into Chad.
It was such a dark night that we could not even see our feet before us.
We slept on the ground that night, just across the border from the rebel base.
I woke up when the moon finally rose at three o'clock in the morning. I watched as it cast its pale ghostly light across the cursed land we had seen and wondered, after Rwanda and Bosnia, why Darfur is being allowed to happen?
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 27 May, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.