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The Devil Came on Horseback

A Must-See Documentary if There Ever Was One

When genocide occurs in Africa, the international community does nothing or if it acts, it acts too late. As both Rwanda and now Darfur have proven, Western governments, acting alone or acting through the United Nations, can be slow to condemn the actions of authoritarian regimes (especially where strategic natural resources like oil or gas aren’t involved).

Even then, slow-moving investigations inevitably lead to toothless resolutions calling for sanctions that are never enforced. Those real-world limitations are no more evident than in Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's (The Trials of Darryl Hunt) documentary, The Devil Came on Horseback, that focuses on the efforts of Brian Steidle, a former U.S. Marine Captain who served in Darfur for six months in 2004 as an unarmed monitor, to bear witness and call for action to the ongoing genocide there.

Following a long family tradition, Steidle entered the Marine Corps. After completing a four-year stint and facing seven years in an office before he could be promoted, Steidle left the Marines. Still looking or hoping for adventure and accustomed to travel, Steidle decided to accept a position as an unarmed monitor for the African Union in the Sudan.

As a monitor, Steidle’s duties were limited to cataloguing and reporting on any violations of a fragile ceasefire between the Arab Muslim-controlled North and the African Christian/animist South. The Arab Muslims controlled the government in Khartoum, while African rebels controlled limited parts of southern and western Sudan. Government-sponsored militias, the Janjaweed, were sent into Darfur to destroy the homes of local inhabitants, and either force them to flee or kill them outright.

As the violence increased, Steidle entered Darfur with increasing frequency, obsessively taking photos of the dead and keeping a daily log for the detailed reports he sent back to his superiors in the African Union. Over time, however, he realized that his reports had a negligible impact on his superiors. Only a handful of his reports made it as far as the United Nations, again with no discernible impact.

After six months, Steidle reached a breaking point and left his position as a monitor for the African Union, taking the photos, reports, and audio recordings with him back to the United States. After much soul-searching and with the support of his activist sister, Gretchen, Steidle decided to go public with his findings. Eventually, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, an advocate for intervention in Darfur, came across Steidle’s findings and published several columns about Steidle’s experiences in Darfur and an archive of his photographs.

Appearing on shows, college campuses (where, on one occasion, Sudanese officials challenged him), and, eventually, in front of Congress and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Steidle sensed momentum building toward active intervention in Darfur. Even his brief appearance at a “Save Darfur” rally in Washington, D.C. seemed to bode well for intervention. Then nothing happened. Or rather, Steidle encountered much hand wringing and sympathetic murmuring from newscasters and government officials. At best, humanitarian assistance was flown or trucked in to refugee camps in Chad. Despite his valiant efforts, Steidle learned the limits of what individual, even one individual with a megaphone and an audience, could do to affect change on a more than marginal level.

Throughout The Devil Came on Horseback, however, Steidle’s willingness to speak about Darfur never wavers, whatever the personal cost or apparent lack of success. Regardless, Steidle emerges as a sympathetic, authentic figure, one for whom the word “humanitarian” only partially describes him. Steidle saw firsthand the worst we could to each other, but his response showed the best we’re capable of, as do, of course, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg and their heartrending documentary about Steidle, his experiences in Darfur, and the need for a concerted international response, through or outside the UN, wherever genocide occurs.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars