Women and children sit next to their shelters on June 11, 2014, in a new settlement in Zam Zam camp for Internally Displaced People, North Darfur. / Albert Gonzalez Farran, United Nations-African Union Mission via AFP/Getty Images
"Genocide.'' Ten years ago this month, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell made the Bush administration the first in U.S. history to use that word to officially describe something happening in real time.
He was testifying before Congress and speaking about Darfur, a region of Sudan where government-backed Arab tribal warriors called janjaweed ("devils on horseback") were driving non-Arab tribes off their land through murder, rape and pillage.
Their plight became a cause - "Save Darfur!'' - taken up by many Americans, notably students, Jews and evangelical Christians. With famine looming as a result of so much displacement, I went to Darfur to report on a crisis that then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called "little short of hell on earth.''
A decade later, hundreds of thousands of Darfuris have died, refugee camps are still filled, and I wonder: What happened to Save Darfur? And was what happened really genocide?
In 1994, the Clinton administration deliberately refrained from describing the tribal massacre in Rwanda as genocide. Officials feared that the international genocide treaty would legally compel U.S. military intervention. And that was off table, coming just a year after U.S. troops were trapped in a street battle during a humanitarian mission in Somalia.
In 2004, the Bush State Department reached the opposite conclusion about Darfur. Rebecca Hamilton, a journalist and lawyer, describes the reasoning: Although it was not clear whether Darfur fit the treaty definition of genocide - there was shaky evidence of intent to destroy "all or part" of an ethnic group - even if it was genocide, the treaty did not compel U.S. intervention.
So the administration called Darfur genocide in part because doing so didn't mean it had to do anything about it.
Powell did hope to spur international action. But coming a year after his claims about the presence of biological weapons in Iraq, Powell's use of the g-word carried little weight with other nations.
Conditions in Darfur stabilized but never returned to normal. The anti-government insurgency that provoked the regime to unleash the janjaweed continues, part of a low-intensity, open-ended civil war.
But the violence may not be the real tragedy. In early 2005, I saw what uprooting a third of Darfuris was doing to the culture's ancient values.
In the camps for the displaced, farmers who once prayed for rain prayed for dry weather, because rain flooded the roads on which international food relief shipments arrived. A people famed for self-reliance were learning to work the welfare rationing system.
Most have never gone back to their villages or land. Some are afraid to; some are used to life in the camp, with its schools, clean water and food rations.
The world, including many who wanted to save Darfur, has moved on. The problem was too obstinate, the issues too complex, the solution too elusive. Thanks partly to the government's ability to keep international journalists out of the region, Darfur has become what American human rights advocate Eric Reeves calls "the genocide that people got tired of.''
As it turned out, I found no famine in 2005; in some ways, it was easier for humanitarian agencies to feed people jammed together in camps.
But in springtime I think of a farmer I met outside his makeshift hut in a camp. Normally in that season he would have been showing his kids how to harness a donkey and how to know when the soil is moist enough for planting.
Instead, he was waiting for a truck to deliver bags of sorghum. "We have no hope,'' he said.
Sometimes genocide isn't killing a people. Sometimes it's killing a way of life.
Hampson is a New York City-based correspondent for USA TODAY.
Read the original story: Voices: Whatever happened to 'Save Darfur' movement?