- a new feature by Gethin Chamberlain [one of the first correspondents to report on Darfur from the Chad-Sudan border], from Sunday's edition of the UK's Telegraph.
Bullets kicked up the dust in front of the armoured car. Another round flashed overhead, close enough for its high-pitched whine to be heard.
The African Union fuel convoy moving west across Darfur had driven straight into a firefight between the Sudanese army and rebels, in which the army was coming off worst. As mortar rounds exploded ahead, an injured government soldier crawled weakly towards his machine gun truck while another lay dead in front of a battered yellow lorry.
Three years after it attempted to quell a rebellion in its western Darfur region by unleashing a nomadic Arab militia known as the janjaweed – literally "devils on horseback" - Sudan's government has lost control of the war.
The suffering inflicted, in terms of hundreds of thousands dead and more than 2.5 million people displaced, has left Khartoum ostracised by the international community. More worrying for Sudan's President Omar al Bashir is that his army is demoralised and reluctant to fight on.
Sitting with his AK-47 at the guardhouse outside the Fata Burno camp for internally displaced people in north Darfur last week, Cpl Mohammed Adam Dahir said the army no longer had the stomach for the fight. "Even I hate myself, being involved in this war," he said. "Everyone wants it to end.
"I totally condemn what is going on. At the beginning of the war, I saw so many atrocities. I was helping to bury the dead. I don't want to stay in the army. I don't like it here because there is injustice and inequality. There is no protection for the civilians."
Cpl Dahir's words confirm the suspicions of Jan Pronk, the United Nations envoy, who was controversially expelled by Khartoum for claiming that Sudanese army morale was plummeting after defeat in two battles. The UN said [Friday], however, that Mr Pronk would return to the country until his contract expires at the end of the year.
The government had accused Mr Pronk of trying to undermine its authority, but the view given to The Sunday Telegraph from troops on the ground suggests that he was right about low morale. Cpl Dahir, 47, joined up 18 years ago and should be demobilising to rejoin the wife and five children he rarely sees. However, his commanders say that there are not enough soldiers and he must stay on.
Sixteen of them live in the rough brick building next to the camp. The army is supposed to send them food and water, but that stopped long ago.
"I am tired of it all," said his comrade, Cpl Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim. "I am worried about my family. They don't have enough food or money." None of the soldiers had seen the army attack civilians, they said. It was the janjaweed, their ostensible allies, who were to blame.
"What upsets me most is they kill the innocents and take their property," said Cpl Dahir. "The janjaweed are pro-government, but they go where there are people and animals and take the opportunity to fight for their own interests."
As he spoke, the secretary of the camp, Mohammed Yusuf Adam, reported that the janjaweed were in fields nearby, trying to steal livestock from locals. Cpl Dahir did not get up. "I will write a report and file it," he said. "Later I will take soldiers and try to drive them away."
An hour earlier, in the Kassab camp at Kutum, residents told African Union police that the janjaweed had snatched three women who were out collecting firewood that morning. Despite the fact that abducted women are usually raped, the police said they did not have the resources or authority to intervene.
What is happening in Darfur is not strictly genocide, but a scorched-earth policy in which the government has exploited ethnic and tribal rivalries. The result is that vast swathes of the country are depopulated. Crops go to seed next to burnt-out villages, where the population has fled to refugee camps around the main towns. Yet even there, they are not safe.
In August, the UN Security Council voted to send a 22,500-strong peacekeeping force to Darfur to take over when the African Union's mandate runs out on December 31. Few believe that it will meet that deadline, even if Khartoum drops its opposition.
Meanwhile, the African Union has to muddle through with its force of 7,000 soldiers. Hamstrung by obstacles placed in its path by Khartoum, it has neither the manpower nor the resources for the job, and cannot move along the roads without permission from the rebels or the government.
Every time it makes progress, an armed faction appears to complicate the situation further. "People need to be noble, they need to want peace," said Col Richard Lourens, the South African commander of the African Union force in Kutum, north Darfur.
"But there is a sneakiness in this country. It is like the HIV virus. Every time you build up immunity they change form."
It was one of his convoys that came under fire last week as The Sunday Telegraph travelled with it. Getting caught in the crossfire is a common hazard of their mission, as is getting bogged down on the rough, sandy roads.
"Going nowhere slowly," one of the soldiers joked, as the detachment prepared to spend another night by the roadside. It is the name of a popular South African television programme, but it could equally sum up the African Union mission.
"If I had another 1,000 men, then 'Wow'," said Col Lourens. "If the janjaweed broke wind, I would know they broke wind."
The African Union can barely make ends meet. The soldiers have not been paid since August and, at Kutum, they live on a monotonous diet of rice and goat.
Like many of his colleagues, Col Lourens would be happy if the UN dropped plans to send in its own force and instead funded an enhanced African Union force under a tough new mandate.
But while the diplomats wrangle, the warring factions continue to strengthen their hands.
"As long as the government of Sudan has power it will hold on to it," said Col Lourens. "But others also want land and power. They are prepared to see their people suffer and be displaced. Where is the will for peace?"