You are looking at the photographs of a grim refugee camp along the desert border between Darfur and Chad because the movie star Angelina Jolie was there. Her image catches your eye and, indeed, the world's attention.
There's no use pretending otherwise. She doesn't. "If I can draw you in a little because I'm familiar, then that's great," she told NEWSWEEK after she came back from her late February visit to the 26,000 residents of Oure Cassoni camp. "Because I know that at the end you're not looking at me, you're looking at them." Well ... "As long as [you] end up looking at them, that's the point."
The aid workers on the scene, at the edge of a conflict the U.S. government now calls genocidal, could not agree more. They live month after month in rough conditions amid constant danger as the war spills into their territory. "You can hear it and feel it," says Dr. Ashis Brahma, medical coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in the camp. Skirmishes take place within a couple of miles of Oure Cassoni, and shooting is often heard at night in the nearby town of Bahai, where Jolie stayed. There was no fighting when she was there, but it broke out again days later. "It's horrifying for the aid workers and for the refugees," says Brahma. "It's everything they left behind." Anything that keeps the world focused on this problem, and looking for solutions, is to the good.
Jolie's journey to Oure Cassoni began, in a sense, six years ago, when she was thought of as a sort of Oscar-winning wild child in Hollywood. She says she had read about what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees does for tens of millions of people driven out of their homes, and became fixated on the idea she had to do something to help. "I remember sitting up for two days straight and reading everything obsessively," she says. When she approached the UNHCR, she adds, "I think they thought I was a little crazy."
Taken on as a good-will ambassador, Jolie traveled to Africa, Pakistan and Cambodia, she says, "with no cameras and with no press, and had the opportunity to have this great education before I spoke at all." Even now, as aid workers on the ground attest, she travels with no entourage. Jolie took a commercial flight to the Chadian capital of N'Djamena (which is in a state of emergency), then traveled with humanitarian staff across the desert to the most remote camp in the country.
Among the people Jolie came across was a deranged 7-year-old boy tethered by his family to a tent pole to keep him from wandering away. According to aid workers, he saw his village bombed when he was 3 and hid alone in the bush for two days before his family found him and fled across the border. "I talked to him for half an hour and just looked at him for a long time before he touched me," says Jolie, "and there was a little boy in there who was open to a kind sound."
Jolie's response to critics who call what she does "celebrity tourism" is matter-of-fact: "I don't know if anybody saying that has spent the last six years of their life going to over 30 camps and really spending time with these people."
While some celebrity involvement in issues can be ludicrous—"lighting some candles and singing 'Give Peace a Chance'," in the words of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke—Jolie stands out as a self-taught student of the issues. U2 rocker Bono is the most important by far, Holbrooke says. But Jolie, who has helped him with his work combating HIV/AIDS, also ranks high. "She is just starting," Holbrooke says, "but she is clearly serious."
"It is something that I am incapable of describing ... those faces and that place and those people," says Jolie. "And so I think it's just—let the people speak for themselves through the camera."
These images, then, tell their story.