Brian Steidle Versus the Devil of Darfur
(from brinkzine.com 5/21/07)
- Brian Steidle
I interviewed Brian Steidle at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, where the exceptional, shocking documentary "The Devil Came on Horseback" played to enthusiastic audiences. [Brink.com is reprinting that interview to coincide with the film's New York theatrical premiere at the IFC Center.]
Former United States Marine Brian Steidle, who lived around the world as the son of a naval officer, was just twenty-seven when he began work in Sudan in 2004. The driven but unassuming Steidle was a military contractor with the Joint Military Commission, whose job it was to monitor the cease-fire in the twenty-year civil war between the Arab-dominated government in the north and the rebel SPLA, drawn from the black African tribes of the south. When he saw leaked photographs from Darfur, in western Sudan, of atrocities committed against peaceful Africans by the government-backed militia, the Janjaweed (“the devil on a horse”), Steidle chose to go to that region as an unarmed observer and US representative for the African Union.
He was unprepared for what he saw. There he witnessed the brutal, systematic slaughter of African men, women, and children that the government denied was taking place. Steidle was frustrated that he could do nothing in Darfur to stop the genocide, but he took more than a thousand photographs of the carnage, figuring that if he showed them in America there would be such outrage that the war would end immediately. So he quit the African Union, managed to sneak out of the country with the incriminating photos, and returned to the States.
The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, who has written passionately about the genocide that has claimed more than 400,000 lives in Darfur, and caused 3 million more to flee their homes, published the photos and there indeed was temporary public outrage. But the Bush administration offered little but lip service. Refusing to let the story die down, Steidle took it upon himself to get the word out about what is happening in Darfur, to a few people at a time. He has made it his personal crusade, giving talks around the country, publishing a memoir (with his sister Gretchen Steidle Wallace, the founder of Global Grassroots) titled “The Devil Came on Horseback,” and agreeing to be the subject of a documentary of the same name, directed by Annie Sunberg and Ricki Stern (the team that made the acclaimed “The Trials of Darryl Hunt”). Filming began when Brian went to the refugee camps in Chad to search for survivors of the violence he photographed and their relatives, and continued as he toured America. I was able to interview the driven but unassuming Steidle at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, where the exceptional, shocking documentary played to enthusiastic audiences.
Danny Peary: When did you meet Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern and agree to make “The Devil Came on Horseback?”
Brian Steidle: We met in the spring of 2005 when I was in Washington speaking about Darfur. They had become friends with my sister Gretchen and she had told them about me and the thousand photographs I had of what was going on there.
DP: Was their any resistance on your part to a documentary?
BS: No, there was no resistance at all. Before we actually agreed to make the movie we already were doing it. It just started happening and then we got our agreements down. It was something we all wanted to do.
DP: You wanted to do a film about Darfur, but they wanted to do a film about you, so did you actually have different reasons for doing the movie?
BS: I think the overall goal for everybody was to tell the story of Darfur and to reach the American people. They show the story from my perspective, through me, because they thought a film purely about Darfur might not resonate with people, who might think of it as just another African tragedy. In this way they hope people will say, “Here’s a guy who could be our next-door neighbor trying to tell a story—let’s help him out.”
DP: Annie and Ricki told me that you were a very willing participant but weren’t prepared for all the nuts and bolts work a documentary requires.
BS: I’d gripe, “How many times do I have to do this voiceover? I’ve said this 900 times!”
DP: Was your mother a liberal or did I make that up?
BS: You made that up. I wouldn’t label her a liberal or conservative. She leans a bit to the right on some issues, but leans to the left on others. My father leans toward the right.
DP: I assumed that since your sister leans to the left, she got that from your mother rather than a father in the military.
BS: Gretchen has leaned to the left since she was a little kid. When we were in the Philippines, she was about ten, eleven, or twelve and got bored and had a different experience from me there. She was able to spend time with some Philippine families in the villages and it opened her eyes a bit more than mine, and since then she always has been trying to figure out how to help people. She’s basically been the humanitarian of the family.
DP: When you got home from Darfur with your photos, were you surprised that the people who came to hear you speak at rallies were mostly from the left?
BS: They do tend to be from the left, and that’s because the left tends to be more aware of humanitarian issues. It hits them a bit differently. But I’ve found that this issue hits people across the board. I’ve had huge support and interest from both sides. I’ve spoken at the Naval Academy and received tremendous support, and I’m scheduled to speak at West Point on Monday, and expect support there as well. The Christian Right has been huge. In fact my strongest supporter was Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, who as people may know, is involved with some liberal issues but is, very Christian right. And Senator John Corzine, now the democratic governor of New Jersey, was a huge supporter. So I’ve had support from both sides of the aisle.
DP: At the end of “Three Days of the Condor,” Robert Redford arrives at the New York Times and it’s a given that people will know his story and everything will be all right. When you went to the Times and Nicholas Kristof printed your pictures, did you feel that everyone would react and the genocide in Darfur would stop?
BS: That was my perception.
DP: In the movie you say how you believed that when everyone was made aware of what was happening in Darfur, they’d react. But they didn’t.
BS: It still frustrates me. I’ve been back two years now and am still talking about this issue, I’m still going around. We have made some progress, but it’s amazing how slow that progress has been. I really thought that when the word was out, there would be boom, a huge reaction, and the UN would go in and solve this issue. At least now we have some powerful tools, the book and the documentary, so hopefully more people will become aware and be motivated to do something.
DP: You were motivated once you first saw the pictures of the school girls who had been chained and burned alive. Was seeing the photos of the murdered girls your first great shock in regard to what was taking place in Darfur?
BS: Yes, but I wasn’t there yet. Those photos were leaked back to us at the mission where we were stationed. And I thought, “Wow, this is incredible.” It was peaceful where I was after the cease-fire was signed, and there I was sitting behind a computer doing Senior Operations stuff. I said I had to go and try to do something.
DP: Where were you when Colin Powell stated for the record that genocide was taking place in Darfur?
BS: That was the middle of 2004 and I had just put in the request to go to Darfur. That was when the African Union was just starting out and we thought it would be effective, and so we felt we could go in there and do some good to stop the genocide. We went there, but the genocide continued and all we could do was photograph it.
DP: How do you react now watching the scene in which you are in a helicopter following the Janjaweed as they drive off in a jeep after destroying a village and probably committing rape and murder? In the movie, you said you wished you had a gun instead of a camera.
BS: That is the one time that I still wish I had a gun. I think I was able to make more of a difference by taking the pictures and coming back and talking about them. But if I had been on the ground with a gun, I clearly would have been overwhelmed and killed them. That situation was amazing to me. They went back to this area the size of about ten football fields filled with loot and they were just dividing it up. They were just sitting there and staring at us, knowing we weren’t doing anything, that we couldn’t do anything.
DP: A scene that really gets to me is the broken-hearted, angry Darfurian teacher who talks about how there nothing is left in her country. To illustrate her point, she shows how the Janjaweed even destroyed all her bowls so she can’t carry water.
BS: The Janjaweed stack the bowls up and shoot a bullet through them. The people in Darfur are not very emotional, so it’s hard to get them to be emotional. So I think the filmmakers did a great job of pulling things together so they could throw those emotions out there.
DP: Among the other things you’d remember is when you figured out the strategy for the Janjaweed and could predict which villages they’d next attack, but you told a superior who ignored you. Was that among the reasons you had to get out of there?
BS: Absolutely. That was definitely one of the biggest reasons. We knew where they were coming from; we knew that they blamed certain villages for stealing their camels so it was obvious they’d go to those villages. After they attacked one village, there was even a letter they gave us in which they said they’d attack this village and this village and this village and they’d burn the villages, steal whatever they wanted, and kill everybody they could. They laid it out for us like Here It Is. And we went to this commander with the African Union and he said he wasn’t interested, that we were there only to monitor. He was a Nigerian colonel. Before him, we had another Nigerian commander who was phenomenal. We would escort humanitarian convoys and do a lot of extra work we weren’t supposed to be doing. We actually had been told not to do it but he allowed us to do it.
Then the new commander came in and took over, and he was horrific. He had a totally different perspective. We got cut off from the humanitarian convoys. He wouldn’t allow us to meet with humanitarian organizations. What we’d do is find out where everyone was and notify them for security reasons. We’d say they were headed to attack for a village, so don’t go there or pull your people out. Under this new commander, we weren’t permitted to share this information. But we did it anyway. He cut that off. He’d say no humanitarian people in the compound. Through pressure from all the monitors and from international pressure and a lot of pressure from the U.S. embassy, we got him out of there in three months. He got of booted from his command.
DP: Because of your military background, for you to do things you weren’t supposed to do, you must have done a lot of soul-searching.
BS: The majority of people who serve in the military want to do good. They join the military and want to help somebody, they want to protect their families, and they want excitement in addition. Since I’ve returned to America I’ve been approached by many military personnel at the academy and active-duty personnel and they’ve said, “How can I do this work? I really want to do this work. This is why I joined the military.”
DP: In the movie, you had a negative reaction when someone called you a whistle-blower.
BS: I think that term tends to be used in a negative sense, as when someone informs on another person. And I don’t look at what I did as something negative.
DP: At one point in the movie, I was thinking you hadn’t cried or expressed guilt that you are unable to prevent what is going on. At that exact moment, when you are riding in a van in Chad, you start crying and say you feel personal guilt.
BS: I remember that moment. Ricki and Annie weren’t there, but I was talking to their cameraman and broke down. There were other times I broke down but the camera wasn’t on me. I still feel like that sometimes: frustrated and guilty. However, now I think I’ve gotten past that and try to take all that frustration and energy and put it into something to try to make a difference. I wrote the book, I made the movie, and I go around the country talking about Darfur.
DP: In the film, at a talk you give in Washington, several Sudanese people attack you for lying. They are obvious plants.
BS: At the majority of events in Washington there tended to be plants from the Sudanese embassy and Sudanese press corps, which is associated with the embassy. They said they were journalists but they represented the Sudanese government. We weren’t surprised when that happened.
DP: But how did you feel when that happens? There you are presenting all your evidence, yet they are denying it.
BS: I get that all the time. So my attitude is: Here it is. I’m going to tell you what I saw, I’m going to show you what I saw, and you can make your own decisions.
DP: You keep your composure and you don’t call them plants.
BS: There’s no reason to confront them on that. Let them talk if they want, but I have the evidence. If they want to come on the stage and look at it, we’ll discuss it.
DP: Has somebody organized against the film at this point?
BS: There’s no real organization, it’s a small-time thing.
DP: We all want the image of Arabs to be positive but the Arabs in your movie are the villains, so has there been negative feedback?
BS: What I try to bring up at screenings is that we’re not critical of all Arabs. In the Sudan there is a large number of Arabs who don’t have water or haven’t had an education and who are equally affected by this war. That’s a point we have to bring up. It’s hard to show those people because we can’t go into those communities because of the fighting. So during Q&As, we try to bring up that it’s not all Arabs but a select group that has been corrupted by the government.
DP: One thing I learned about in the film is the involvement of China, which gets large quantities of oil from the Sudanese government.
BS: Most people don’t know about that. Steven Spielberg didn’t know about it, so when he was confronted by Mia Farrow, he said that he had to write a letter about this. He knew about Darfur but he didn’t know about the Chinese connection. China could stop this war tomorrow.
DP: Could the United States stop it tomorrow?
BS: No. We’ve got to do a lot more. Since we don’t do any trade with Sudan, unlike China, and don’t have any ongoing political involvement with Sudan, we have to convince other players to convince the Sudanese government to stop the killing. We would have to convince China to convince Sudan. We could pass legislation that divested all mutual funds, and stop all individuals from doing business with the companies that are complicit with genocide. But that will take time. We could enforce a no-fly zone and impose additional sanctions. The U.S. already has sanctions on Sudan, but the rest of the world doesn’t. So it’s something we can do a lot more about, though we can’t stop it.
DP: When you hear Bush say “Darfur” in a speech, what is your reaction?
BS: I think it’s a good thing. It means somebody, whether it’s him or not, thought it was important enough to put in a speech. That at least he’s aware of what’s going on is a positive thing. But it’s not enough. There needs to be definitive action. It becomes frustrating when you hear about it, hear about it, hear about it, and then even call it genocide, but then there’s nothing done. It should be “Let’s talk about it,” and it should be in every one of his speeches. It should be a priority, a topic of discussion in the upcoming elections.
It should be out there. We were at an event in New Hampshire with Senator Edwards and his wife Elizabeth and there was a special screening. And we talked to Barack Obama’s people. Gretchen and one of the producers will be going to an event next week, also trying to get Darfur into the political debate and let everyone know it’s an important issue. People do want to know about it. You realize that from the success of “Hotel Rawanda.” And it had dead bodies in it. Do people want to know about the genocide? If you say no, then you’re wrong.
DP: Do you see progress in getting the word out so we can be hopeful?
BS: Yes, it’s definitely something we can be hopeful about. I think we’ve been pretty good at giving people the tools to help them move forward and make a difference. The more people who see the movie or read the book, the more people who will be motivated to action. The key is to get everyone to see it.
DP: Are there other witnesses like you who are talking about genocide in Darfur?
BS: No. There are a lot of people talking about it and doing things about it, but there aren’t witnesses.
DP: So I’m sure that makes you more obligated to continue what you’re doing for as long as it takes. You’re pretty much stuck.
BS: Yeah, I know.