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Film Review – The Devil Came on Horseback: A US Marine Is Witness to Slaughter in Darfur

by Jessica Mosby

The United Nations defines genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” To date, some 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced in Darfur at the hands of Sudanese-funded Arab militias – in short, genocide. So what happens next?

The documentary film, The Devil Came on Horseback, which is currently playing across the United States, spends 85 minutes answering that very question. The film is pure humanitarian propaganda: a call-to-action to stop the killing and displacement of innocent people.

The film begins with U.S. Marine Captain Brian Steidle arriving in Sudan in 2004 as a military contractor with the Joint Military Commission to “monitor” the recent ceasefire that ended two decades of armed conflict in the region. As an unarmed observer, Steidle’s responsibilities are ambiguous at best. What separates The Devil Came on Horseback from other recent documentaries, namely those criticizing the Iraq war, is that Steidle is not a naïve and inexperienced bystander who took a break from arm chair foreign policy discussions to offer commentary. Rather, he comes from a military family, voluntarily joined the Marines, and suffered multiple serious injuries during combat. He retired from the Marines because he did not want a desk job.

As a patrol leader in Sudan, Steidle investigated ceasefire violations, mainly by taking photos and writing reports. Even though the ceasefire did not include the Darfur region of Northern Sudan, Steidle soon learned that ethnic African rebel groups were fighting the oppressive Arab-dominated Sudanese government in the region. He discovered evidence that the government had retaliated by funding the Janjaweed (Arabic for “Devil on a Horse”) militia and the violence escalated. However, the Sudanese government continues to deny any such involvement.

After traveling to Darfur, Steidle took photos of everything he saw, wrote approximately 80 reports that were mostly ignored, and interviewed anyone who would talk to him. He had no mandate to protect anyone and carried no weapon to even protect himself. In one Janjaweed attack, children were tied up and burned alive; in viewing the remains, Steidle realized all he could do was photograph the charred bodies. Since the Sudanese government would not allow any reporters in the region, the hands of the mainstream press were tied. They had no way to document or publicize the magnitude of the death and destruction at the hands of the Janjaweed.

Steidle was supposed to be a neutral observer documenting what he saw, but how can one be neutral while bearing witness to atrocities against humanity, especially as they are being committed? The Marine in him wanted to take up arms and “protect people with force.” But eventually Steidle’s impotence took its emotional toll and he had to return home. Once stateside, he decided to show the world what he had seen; he believed that if his photos were published, surely troops would be deployed immediately to stop the genocide.

Steidle’s photos were soon published in a New York Times Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof. A press tour and meeting with Condoleezza Rice followed. For a brief period, Steidle was everywhere and the world seemed to be listening; then nothing. His heart-wrenching photos only held public and government attention for a moment. His prediction about the immediacy of military response proved sadly naïve and his comparisons to Rwanda were ignored. People around the world just did not seem to care that thousands in Darfur were dying or fleeing to Eastern Chad (where the violence has now spread).

Blaming the United State’s involvement in Iraq for the lack of action in Darfur seems like an obvious explanation. The film mentions this, and grants that it is hard to truly take interest in yet another tragedy when today’s world is so over-saturated with conflict and natural disasters. But The Devil Came on Horseback also asks a most important question: Where is the rest of the world? China’s there, but only to drill for Sudanese oil – the country monopolizes 80 percent of that natural resource; the Sudanese government in turn funds the Janjaweed with its oil revenues. As one refugee living in a camp in Eastern Chad points out during an interview with Steidle, even though he and other refugees are Muslims, the Islamic world has done nothing to help them.

The film is appropriately critical of the U.N. for debating the meaning of “genocide” while thousands of people are being killed or displaced. Steidle’s devastating footage of dead bodies and looted villages is often contrasted with news narratives describing the lexicon debate. To date the U.N. has passed 17 resolutions on Darfur but the violence there continues to escalate. (It should be noted that the current U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Sudan on August 3rd to, as he says, “see for myself the plight of those we seek to help, and the conditions under which our peacekeepers in Darfur will operate”.)

To its credit, the film does not spend time laboriously blaming anyone or any particular country for inaction. While there is criticism of past and current policies, The Devil Came on Horseback does not offer easy answers to stop the genocide in Darfur and ultimately falls short in offering a practical way to end the conflict. The film is a call to action – its real message asks that we all look toward the future and come together to end the conflict. Now we just have to figure out how.

About the Author

Jessica Mosby is an aspiring writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she’s not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

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