An interview with Brian Steidle, a former American military observer in Darfur and the subject of the documentary film and book The Devil Came on Horseback.
Briefly explain why you were in Darfur.
I had been in Sudan for seven months prior going to Darfur. Even though I was in Sudan, I had very little idea what was going on in Darfur. At the time, I was looking for adventure and a job that paid well.
How did your experience in the military inform your work in Darfur?
All my colleagues who served with me in the military did so because we wanted to protect people who couldn’t protect themselves from an oppressor. As I was a military contractor observing the cease-fire, we were neutral military observers. We thought we were doing a good job monitoring the cease-fire but in reality that wasn’t the case. It became very frustrating and I quit the job because you couldn’t do anything but count dead bodies and watch people’s lives being destroyed in front of us.
Why do you say your camera was not nearly enough to cover what you saw?
I took pictures but that was it. I didn’t have the capability to stop the fact that 400,000 people – and counting – are dead as a result of a government killing them because of who they are.
What’s happened in Iraq has caused the U.S. to lose a lot of moral ground. Apparently, the Sudanese government is cooperating with us regarding intelligence on al Qaeda. Our government continues to appease them. The only way to trump that is to have the American people stand up and say “Hey, we want this to stop.”
I always planned on writing a book that described my journey. Originally, I wanted to do a documentary about the women in the compound but it changed into telling the story of Darfur through my eyes.
When I saw The Devil Came on Horseback at the Tribeca Film Festival, the pictures were so gripping and surreal I thought I was watching a fictional movie.
I was there and I can’t believe what I saw. When people see the over 2,000 images I’ve taken, I hope they’re going to be motivated to get involved in this crisis.
What’s your reaction to the faith community’s response to this situation?
I’ve spoken at numerous churches and synagogues. In particular, the response I’ve gotten from the Jewish community has been tremendous. While Christian organizations are very supportive of our work in Darfur, many of them are not as supportive as they were with the campaign against genocide in the South. There the battle was between Christians and Muslims. Since the Darfur situation pits Muslims against each other, I don’t see the urgency from some very powerful Christian groups. I’d like to see them step up to the plate this time.
How can religious organizations such as Evangelicals for Darfur have a positive impact on this situation?
Too much lecturing can drive people away. I run into people every day who don’t know what Darfur is. We can reach them through events where there are tables and information available about the situation but where there are also activities going on. Everyone is enjoying themselves as they learn. I was involved with Young Life and we did a lot of really fun events along with our teaching.
What organizations are you currently involved with and why?
I work with Hope Artists: Helping Other People Everywhere (HOPE). This is an advocacy movement targeted to youth between 18 and 30. The money raised through cultural and arts events will go to Global Grassroots (www.globalgrassroots.org), which is working to rebuild the lives of the genocide survivors. We want people to have hope that Darfur can be a hopeful situation. Hollywood movies portray Africa at its lowest point in history, but there’s another side of the story. For example, Rwanda is now the Silicon Valley of Africa. Liberia just elected the first women president in the continent. Even the diamond trade in Sierra Leone is starting to get regulated. We need to inform and educate people but also give them a sense of hope that change is indeed possible.