This is the third part of a five-part series.

In the over 20 years I spent in Africa, I saw a lot of desolation and more than enough barren camps erected to house civilians displaced by war and famine. The displaced persons camps in Darfur can compete with the worst that I've encountered.

"Home" to over 20,000 people, the camps in Geneina near the Chadian border rise out of thick dust that turns to impassable mud at the first sign of rain. There are few animals, and even fewer trees. Small dwellings have been erected from whatever is available – sticks, the odd bit of thatch, plastic bags, the woven plastic from food aid bags. There is no land on which to plant, and nowhere for animals to graze. There are no jobs to be had, and, as yet, no schools and only the most rudimentary of clinics. Even at this time of year, when the weather is at its coolest, the temperature hovers near 90 degrees at mid-day.

Camp services are provided by officials from the United Nations and literally hundreds of relief workers from non-governmental organizations supported by major donors, including the United States. Thus far, the United States has spent $200 million to ease the suffering borne of the Darfur crisis – a sum which makes us the largest donor to the aid effort, but which pales by comparison to Iraq, where we spend close to that amount every day.

The stories told by the residents of the Krinding Camp are repetitive, but none of the horror is lost in the retelling of their tales – of the militia attacking at night, of their animals being slaughtered, of the men, women and children beheaded, stabbed, beaten or left for dead; of the wells poisoned by corpses and of the torches that set their homes alight. Some of the young people who greeted us when we entered the camps held up drawings they had made – of Kalashnikov rifles spewing bullets at pregnant women, of houses on fire, of helicopter gunships firing on a group of kids.

It gets worse. In a small compound at the edge of the camp, we met with a large group of women and children who told stories of rape. I can't use their names, or identify their home villages, because many of the innocent civilians who have told their stories to human rights investigators and reporters have faced reprisals from local government security agents.

The women's stories were disturbingly similar – most had been raped repeatedly, others had been caught and raped as they gathered wood on the periphery of the camps. One woman was told she had a choice between rape and death, but if she was lucky, she would get both. Among the women were young children, most memorably a seven year old girl who had been raped three days earlier, and who still shook with fear, unable to speak as her mother recounted what had happened.

While the camps provide these women temporary refuge, they do not offer real security. The government's military and police forces have access, and camp residents convey a palpable fear of renewed attack. When asked if they would return to their homes, the women shrieked and shouted their refusal; the traditional leaders, or sheikhs, said that perhaps they would go home…in 30 years.

Meanwhile, a plan agreed between the government and the United Nations has triggered new violence. Negotiated by Jan Pronk, a former minister from The Netherlands and now the specialrRepresentative of Kofi Annan, the 90-day plan calls for the creation of 'safe areas' protected by government forces. The 'safe area' plan has won few admirers among the displaced and even fewer from among the rebel movements. The displaced civilians we met felt certain that the government could not, and more likely would not, ensure their security – in no small measure because they believe that the government is behind the chaos that has taken root across Darfur.

From the rebel point of view, the 'safe area' gives government forces undue advantage, and undermines the ceasefire agreement negotiated by the African Union. Under the AU plan, government and rebel forces signed on to a 'ceasefire in place,' agreeing to maintain their positions and pledging not to make any moves designed to expand their operational territory. But the 'safe area' plan requires that government forces move outward from the edges of the camps to create security corridors – and as they move, they overrun rebel positions, clashes ensue, and tensions rise. Several ceasefire violations were reported in the days before we arrived, and most had come about because the U.N. plan had literally collided with the agreement forged by the AU.

Even more horrific than the stories of the displaced and the continuous stream of incident reports are the evident long term consequences of this crisis. Absent security in and around their homes, the displaced are destined to remain in camps for the foreseeable future, dependent on the outside world for aid and increasingly determined to fight – and defeat – their opponents.

Meanwhile, in encouraging Darfur's tribal militia to defend what they call "public security," the Sudanese government has let a treacherous genie out of the bottle. By authorizing the Arab militia to rape and pillage at will, Khartoum is exploiting a cleavage that extends across western Sudan, into neighboring Chad and all the way to Mauritania.

Much of sub-Saharan Africa's northern belt is characterized by division, with the Sahelian zone populated largely by Muslims and home to more nomads than the more settled, non-Muslim lands to the immediate south. North-South schisms, often mirrored by splits between Arabs and Africans, and pastoralists and settled farmers, have increased as desertification has pushed the borders of the Sahel further south. Traditional land tenure arrangements have not kept pace with growing poverty and environmental degradation, and nomadic and settled populations are frequently forced to compete for land and water.

By employing Arab militia as its proxy, the Sudanese government has exploited local tensions to unleash a cycle of violence that threatens the lives of millions and, ultimately, the viability of the Sudanese state. While ethnic and tribal tensions are nothing new, the government's deliberate manipulation across Sudan – of Arabs against Africans, of tribe against tribe, of northerners versus southerners, and Muslims against Christians – is destroying the fragile unity that has held this diverse country together.

Few believe that center can hold, unless the policies change or the government does. It is only a matter of time before violence erupts in eastern Sudan, where the Beja people – who like many Darfuris are Muslim but not Arab – have suffered decades of marginalization. As in the south, and now Darfur, the government's response will more likely be to attack rather than to accommodate.

Khartoum has played this card before. Marauding militia were deployed against southern rebels in the Bahr al Ghazal region, and state policy in the disputed Nuba Mountains was to depopulate and impoverish that region. The unleashing of an Arab militia in Darfur does not mark the first time that the Sudanese government has opted for decimation in the face of popular rebellion. And unless the international community moves quickly, it will not be the last.

Gayle Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.

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