Granted unparalleled access as an official military observer, Brian Steidle has chronicled Darfur’s horrors at uncomfortably close range. FP spoke with this Marine Corps veteran and author about his new film, the conflict in Sudan, and his hope that the world can finally stop the killing.
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FOREIGN POLICY: Sitting here in the United States, its extremely difficult to imagine what its like to be in the middle of a place like Darfur. Is there any particular experience that sticks in your mind?
Brian Steidle: There are too many. From women telling you how their children were taken from them and tossed into burning huts, to little girls that were shot at the age of 1, to people that were hacked up and women that were ruthlessly rapedall of it. Everything from the bad to the good. From having fun with all the other expats who were there, relaxing for a few minutes before we went back to work. Hanging out with the most amazing people who put their lives on hold to go to foreign countries and help people out. And also the Sudanese people, who are absolutely wonderful people. They will welcome you into their homes and feed you. Obviously the bad things are mixed in there as well. But just looking at these people and how amazing they are [made me realize] that I had to help them out somehow.
FP: Did you ever become desensitized to the killing that you saw?
BS: Im not the kind of guy who gets queasy. But even when you see it everyday, you definitely dont get desensitized to it. The first guy you saw that was burned alive is the same as the second person. You just think, Wow, it is incredible that this is actually happening and that people are allowing this to happen.
FP: What did you hope to accomplish by publishing your book, The Devil Came on Horseback, as well as the film?
BS: I wanted to educate people about whats going on, to try to motivate them and empower them to make a difference. I wanted to basically just raise peoples consciousness and let them know that these things are happening and that we, as privileged individuals, have a responsibility to try to help them out, no matter who they are or where they are.
FP: How do you motivate people here in the United States to care about atrocities happening in a remote land, thousands of miles away, when soldiers are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and people are still displaced by Hurricane Katrina?
BS: By telling them the storiesshowing them the people there and whats happened to them. Nothing that is happening to our citizens in this country even compares to what is happening there in Darfur. Its terrible that there are people still displaced due to Hurricane Katrina and that there are homeless people on the streets, but even with all of that, we are still one of the most privileged countries in the world. I live in Los Angeles where there are a lot of homeless people, but there are homeless shelters. They dont have to worry about a government that is going to go kill them, or people who are going to rape their parents in front of them and burn their sisters in huts.
FP: Is it frustrating to know what could be done to help people in Darfur, but not know whether you are accomplishing it?
BS: What I think is most frustrating is that we continuously talk about the issue and were just finally getting to the point where U.N. troops will possibly be able to deploy early next year. Its taken so long to even get to that point. And we still dont even know whether the Sudanese government is going to pull a fast one at the end or whether the funding is going to be there for them. There still isnt an overall arms embargo against the Sudanese government. There still isnt a no-fly zone that is being enforced over the country. Humanitarian aid still cant access the people. The situation is still just as dire as it was when we started the campaign.
FP: Does the United Nations Security Councils authorization of the joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force and Khartoums approval make you hopeful at all?
BS: It makes me somewhat hopeful. Its a good thing that international pressure has been able to convince the U.N. to do this. But it has taken way too long to do it, and it shouldnt have had to come from a peoples movement. It should have come from the Security Council in the beginning. They should have said, This is our responsibility. We were formed to protect against things like this, and we should move on it, regardless of whether the Sudanese government gives us permission. So, its frustrating at the same time.
FP: It must help that Ban Ki-moon has been there this week.
BS: Well, Kofi Annan was there and nothing was accomplished by his visit. As a matter of fact, when he headed out to one of the refugee camps, the Sudanese government knew he was going there because they knew his schedule. The day before, they went out and cleaned out the entire refugee camp and moved more than 5,000 people. They showed up with a whole bunch of trucks, picked these people up, and forcibly displaced them once again. So when Kofi Annan showed up on the ground, there was nothing there. Ban Ki-moon cannot go to Darfur and get an unbiased look at whats going on. The Sudanese government is going to take them where they want him to go. They are going to show him what they want to show him, and nobody is going to speak up.
Brian Steidle is a former U.S. marine and the co-author of the memoir The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007), which is the subject of a recent documentary with the same title.
For other timely interviews with leading world figures and expert analysts, visit FP’s complete Seven Questions Archive.