The Devil Came on Horseback
directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
“As they had seen our helicopter coming they had gathered up their crew in two vehicles and were speeding off. And so we followed them on the road. And I was just taking pictures with my camera the whole time, you know, of these two trucks that were going by just thinking: We could end this right now. If we had a mandate to defend these people, and if I was looking through a scope instead of looking through the lens of my camera, these vehicles would be done. These people could return to their village and they’d be safe. Well, I was taking pictures…”
– Brian Steidle*
In 1983, civil war broke out between the north and south in Africa’s largest country, Sudan. Racial tensions have run high in the country for decades between the mostly Arab population in the north and the black Africans in the south. Civil war rages on today even as the United Nations attempts to broker a peace between the warring factions. The dire situation in Darfur, a region in western Sudan roughly the size of Spain, is a horrific consequence of the ongoing war. The dismal situation began in 2003 when tensions came to a head after the Sudanese Liberation Army (S.L.A.), a southern militia, attacked government military forces in North Sudan’s capital Al-Fashir. Rather than send troops in response to attack the S.L.A., state-sponsored militia known as the “janjaweed” (Arabic for devil on horseback) retaliated by attacking non-S.L.A-affiliated villages. These communities were home to innocent civilians of non-Arab descent. The janjaweed not only destroyed the villages, displacing millions of civilians in the process, but brutally killed and raped those in their path. As a result, this conflict has become known for the overwhelming use of rape as a weapon of war. Since 2003, over 300,000 civilians have been killed, 2.7 million displaced, and thousands more brutally raped and beaten.1 Inconsistent with the United Nations estimates, the Sudanese government reports that no more than 10,000 lives have been lost in this conflict.2
The Devil Came on Horseback follows retired U.S. Marine captain Brian Steidle during his tenure as an unarmed military observer for the African Union. Charged with monitoring the recent ceasefire agreement between the north and the south, and armed with only a camera and a pen, Steidle embarks on a journey that would ultimately lead to documenting the mass killings which have come to be popularly recognized as a replay of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in slow motion. As the reality of the situation in Darfur begins to sink in, we see Steidle struggling with his inability to help the victims in Darfur; he is torn between the urge to fall back on his military training and defend the helpless, and the confines of an observer position where his only duty is to record and report the atrocities occurring in plain view. Sitting in the helicopter, it all seems so simple. With the right mandate and the right weapon, Steidle can take the first steps toward ending this genocide. But he has neither a gun nor mandate.
As the documentary unfolds, we begin to see not only the convolution of the conflict in Darfur, but also the complex nature of the role of an unarmed observer. While no conflict situation ever is simple, Darfur is caught in an especially tangled web. As violence erupted in the region, there was a desire by the United Nations to send a new peacekeeping mission into the country. This mission would exist alongside the already established mission to Sudan (UNMIS), formed in March 2005. In 2007, in response to resistance by the government in Sudan, which was unwilling to allow another U.N. mission within its borders, a hybrid mission was created under the direction of the African Union. This compromise between the U.N. and Sudan resulted in the formation of the United Nations African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) to address the ongoing violence in the western region of Darfur. The success of this mission, the first hybrid operation between the U.N. and the African Union . has been hindered by stipulations set by Sudan, such as disallowing the deployment of any non-African troops. Additionally, there has been great dispute and confusion over whether or not the violence in Darfur is supported by the government of Sudan. It is the official stance of Sudanese leaders that the violence in Darfur is the result of neighboring militias warring against each other; the assertion that the janjaweed are working for the government is vehemently denied. As becomes obvious in this documentary, anyone—including the janjaweed themselves—will tell you the government supplies the weapons and orders them to kill. Finally, while it can be argued the conflict in Darfur has become its own entity, it remains intricately woven into the fabric of the larger, ongoing civil war. A solution to either situation most likely requires the solving of both.
There are many factors that complicate arriving in a conflict zone as an unarmed observer. Arguably the most dangerous is the often misinterpreted symbol of the military uniform. As Steidle highlights, the people believe their protectors have arrived when a mission of observers lands in Darfur. They believe that men and women in uniform, generally wearing the blue helmets synonymous with the United Nations, have come to protect them. This excitement is soon followed by the painful realization that the group of foreigners is merely there to document the crimes committed against the Darfuris. The observer is equipped with neither the mandate nor the materials needed to defend the innocent and vulnerable. Beyond becoming emotionally painful, this reality is also extremely dangerous for both parties. With great disparity between expectations and actual capabilities, often unarmed observer camps become surrounded by makeshift villages populated by those who have been displaced by the conflict. It is the latter’s belief that they will be safer near the observers. Unfortunately, this proximity has the perverse effect of making them even easier targets for the violent militias.
The function of passive observer is one assumed not merely by individuals like Brian Steidle, but all too often, and sadly, it is a posture adopted by the international community. The Devil Came on Horseback opens the door to the broader discussion of international politics and the protection of citizens, and leads us to question why the international community chooses to take on the status of observer rather than the role of defender. Steidle’s struggle to reconcile his desire to protect and his inability to do so further illustrates the absurdity of the international community’s choice to continually assume the same position. Who will stand up and defend these citizens if the international community chooses to merely stand idly by?
This is not to say the answer is for the international community to always be armed with military might, although some would argue this often becomes a necessity. Rather, it is a question of engaging as an instrument of action or remaining agents of inaction. Action might be seen in the exercise of political might and international goodwill, each of which were a struggle for Steidle to build once back in the United States, engaged and fighting for the people of Darfur. Inaction is revealed as reliance in a simple belief that it is someone else’s responsibility to protect, and thereby accepting a supportive, and thus complacent, observer role.
The Devil Came on Horseback serves not only to further the cause of the Darfuri people, but as a catalyst for a broader discussion about the complexity of international cooperation, foreign policy, the work of those whose job it is to report atrocities, and the role of those charged with protecting the citizens of the world. This documentary highlights how essential it is for the international community and bodies (such as the United Nations) to move past the witness role and take charge in cases where innocent civilians are losing their lives in numbers beyond our ability to reliably count, often with an unbelievable veracity. What proves most shocking and disheartening about the crisis in Darfur is that the genocide continues today. In a recent open letter to President Barack Obama’s deputies, John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, argues that not only is the genocide ongoing, but the situation between the north and south has become even more volatile.3 The janjaweed continue to attack, murder and rape innocent civilians. The International Criminal Court has issued warrants for the arrest of key Sudanese officials, but to no avail, and international governments remain hesitant to act. The situation and the Darfuri people remain in peril.
*Editors Note: Read and view former Marine Captain Brian Steidle’s efforts to bring global attention to the tragedy of Darfur in his 2005 photographic essay published in the World Policy Journal, the first magazine to publish the photos. New subscribers who sign up for one-, two- or three-year subscriptions of WPJ, or existing subscribers who renew for two years, will receive a free copy of the award-winning (and Emmy-nominated) documentary The Devil Came on Horseback.
More on the film: http://www.thedevilcameonhorseback.com/
- 1. UN News Service. “ICC chamber ordered to rule again on genocide charge against Sudanese leader,” UN Daily News (February 3, 2010): http://www.un.org/news/dh/pdf/english/2010/03022010.pdf.
- 2. BBC News. “Q&A: Sudan’s Darfur Conflict” BBC News (February 3, 2010): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3496731.stm.
- 3. John Prendergrast and Omer Ismail. “Truth and Consequences for Sudan Now: An Open Letter to President Obama’s Deputies,” Enough Project (January 20, 2010): http://www.enoughproject.org/publications/truth-consequences-sudan.