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Even in hell...

The little girl, maybe 6 years old, was shoeless in the scorching sand.  I looked closely at her feet, struck by how old they appeared, wrinkled and calloused gray, and it occurred to me, she's probably never worn a pair of shoes. 

I saw her near Nyala, in Sudan's Darfur region, in a camp for displaced people called al-Salam, Arabic for peace, it is a place surrounded by war.

Now, 700 camps like this one dot Darfur, and the majority of the people in them are children. Glimpsing a brand new baby in one camp, when the wind caught the fabric of her mother’s headdress, I wondered how one keeps a child alive in this hell.

The feet of children -- old and worn by the sands of Darfur.
Photo by NBC News

For more than three years, Darfur has been tortured by a war started when the government included Arab militias into its police and armed forces while trying to put down a rebellion amongst its black tribes.  Hard to control, these militias are blamed for a kind of terror the U.S. has called genocide and the International Criminal Court calls crimes against humanity. 

The ethnic Arab tribes were historically slave traders in this region, but in the years since, they have intermarried and lived so closely with ethnic black tribes that it is sometimes difficult to tell the two groups apart. 

Called to arms, the ethnic Arab nomads were already motivated to push into new territories. The Sahara desert is moving south, perhaps because of global warming, drying up lands they once used to feed their herds. 

Video: Ann Curry travels to Darfur

When the history of Darfur's tragedy is written, the outside world may see it as a firestorm sparked by politics, fanned by a thirst for resources on a tinder of long-forgotten ethnic tensions.

Like most wars, this one too has lost meaning and clarity as the violence spirals. Now, the government is fighting several rebel groups and appears to have lost control of some of the Arab militiamen within its ranks. There are even reports of Arabs attacking Arabs and blacks attacking blacks. 

Stuck in the middle of this horror is Darfur's future -- these children who, along with their parents, are experiencing a kind of suffering that traumatizes.

They are the first to draw near to you, an alien with your clean clothes and Thuraya satellite phone.

Looking at them standing there, dirty and hungry, their clothes in tatters, you wonder what hope there is for them and for the future of Darfur. Then you realize, they are looking at you for something to make them smile. And so you try and BOOM! You discover that even in hell, a child can laugh.

One of the children Ann Curry met in a camp outside
Nyala in the Darfur region of Sudan.
Photo by: NBC News