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Witness at Darfur

May 9, 2009 | by Judy Gruen

Brian Steidle's experiences in Darfur propelled him to become one of the foremost activists trying to focus the world's attention on the ongoing genocide.

During the 13 months that Brian Steidle served as an unarmed military observer in the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan, he saw atrocities that, in his words, "no human being should ever see."

As a former Captain in the United States Marine Corps who had participated in a NATO mission in Kosovo, Steidle was hardly a stranger to the ways of war. Yet nothing in his military experience prepared him for the unimaginable brutality he would witness in Darfur, an area roughly the size of Texas, where villagers were routinely tortured and mutilated, and entire villages burned, often with its residents locked inside their huts. The Sudanese government, controlled by Arab Moslems, had been ridding Darfur of its African Moslem residents, because, as Steidle explains, they are "too black."

Yet despite the ongoing horrors Steidle saw, one memory continues to haunt him: the image of 1-year-old Mihad Hamid, whose aunt had brought her to Steidle hoping for medical attention. Steidle examined the baby and realized she had been shot in the back. The baby's breathing was shallow, and Steidle knew her prospects were bleak. What kind of person takes a gun to a 1-year-old? he asked himself in shock. Yet the African Union, to whom Steidle and his team reported, had not authorized the observers to help civilians directly. They were only to report events on the ground to non-governmental agencies, and write reports on violations of the cease-fire supposedly in place.

"As a Marine I had been trained to go in with weapons and take out the bad guys. Here, I only had a notebook and a camera."

Steidle reported the attack on Mihad's village, and the injuries he saw first-hand, to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other relief agencies. But Mihad was never found. The limitations imposed on Steidle that prevented him from taking action to protect innocent villagers were an ongoing frustration. And in the case of Mihad Hamid, a cause of heartbreak and regret. "As a Marine I had been trained to go in with weapons and take out the bad guys. Here, I only had a notebook and a camera," he told

You might call Brian Steidle an accidental activist. After completing his military service, Steidle was thrilled to find a job listing by a civilian contracting company looking for a military observer in Sudan. His background as a Marine Captain made him a perfect candidate. He applied on Friday, was accepted on Saturday, and had a plane ticket in hand by Monday. He was one of only three Americans who would be part of this observation team. "I accepted the mission with the enthusiasm of a boy invited to Disney World for the first time," Steidle wrote in his book, The Devil Came on Horseback (co-written with his sister, Gretchen Steidle Wallace). Steidle still thought that after a couple of years of field work, during which he'd get to drive Land Cruisers and advise military operations, he'd realize his dream of sailing his boat around the world.

Instead, Steidle's experiences in Darfur propelled him to become one of the foremost activists trying to focus the world's attention about on the ongoing genocide of its people. In addition to his new book, Steidle is also the subject of a documentary, also called The Devil Came on Horseback (the DVD will be released by Netflix on October 30). A feature film about him is also in the works. He has sold his boat, and when not traveling on the speaker circuit, maneuvers around his home town of Santa Monica, California, on his bicycle.


After Steidle landed in Sudan, another observer set the tone with this greeting: "Welcome to hell." Almost immediately, Steidle's work took on a grim familiarity: after a village reported an attack, usually by government militias known as the Janjaweed, his team went to interview survivors and report on what had taken place. Steidle was one of the only people with a camera, and often, the first white person the villagers had ever seen. Steidle's photographs (he took more than 1,000) became crucial evidence of the genocide, particularly because other team members often could not agree on what to include in their reports. (The team included a representative from the government as well as one from the rebel tribes. "Facts" that everyone could not agree on were simply omitted from reports.) Steidle hoped that somebody, anybody, might be shocked enough by his photographs to intervene in the appalling violence. Knowing how damning these photos were to the government of Sudan, Steidle swore to guard his photos with his life, if necessary.

Tensions have been brewing in Sudan since 1989, when a military coup put Moslem Arabs in charge. Christian and animist tribes in Darfur chafed under the increasing attempts by the government to "Arabize" them while also denying them other basic rights, such as owning property, getting an education, and modernizing their villages. In fact, while Khartoum is a thriving, modern city, the horse-drawn plough still hasn't reached some regions in Darfur. Finally, in 2003, black rebel militias attacked an airport, and the Sudanese government decided to "drain the pond to catch the fish," as Steidle explains. Outnumbered and outgunned, the rebels and the villagers in Darfur have been easy prey. To date, at least 350,000 Sudanese have been killed and more than 2 million have become refugees, many of them fleeing to neighboring Chad.

After a massacre that Steidle had warned was coming left 107 people tortured to death, he could take no more.

During his year in Sudan, Brian Steidle endured malaria, had a wisdom tooth yanked out by a dentist wielding a mini-crowbar; was taken hostage, and was within minutes of being fired upon by vicious Janjaweed militia. At the last minute, Steidle's team managed to escape by helicopter.

Although given more responsibility over time, Steidle's frustration with his mission only grew. He had learned to accurately predict attacks, yet his evidence was ignored by those who had power to protect the villages. Finally, after a massacre that Steidle had warned was coming left 107 people (including infants) tortured to death, he could take no more. "We could have stopped this, but we failed!" he yelled to another team member. Fed up by the limitations of his job and the apathy and ineptitude of the African Union to deal responsibility with this calamity, Steidle resigned his post.


Things changed dramatically for Steidle after he returned to the United States. His sister, Gretchen Steidle Wallace, convinced him to turn over many of his photographs to reporter Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, who had been covering the carnage in the region. Worried for his career and even his life, Steidle released a few photos anonymously at first, but soon agreed to use his name in follow-up reports.

Although the State Department discouraged him from giving interviews, he had given the matter a lot of thought. "I had legal right to speak out, and there seemed to be political support for my continuing to share my story with as many others as we could reach," Steidle explains. Since then, Steidle has testified before Congress, traveled to Geneva to speak before the UN Human Rights Commission, and shared his evidence with the British Parliament. He estimates that he spent eight months' of his salary from his work in Darfur on his travels to raise awareness about the genocide.

There were additional costs, too. Former team members back in Darfur were angry at him for speaking out, saying he was making their jobs harder because the government of Sudan was clamping down even harder. During speaking engagements, representatives from the government of Sudan would show up, accusing Steidle of lying about the situation and claiming his photos were phony. He even received threatening e-mails. And yet, he still saw Darfurians in his dreams, their faces silent but imploring. "They needed me to be their voice," Steidle says. "And there were no other witnesses willing to speak out. How could I not continue?"

"There were no other witnesses willing to speak out. How could I not continue?"

Two years after leaving Darfur, Steidle is encouraged by the growing awareness in the United States, but remains frustrated that U.N. resolutions to send in troops are still months from being implemented. Asked about newspaper reports that deaths are down in the region, Steidle scoffs. "Sure, deaths are down. They've already destroyed ninety percent of the villages. The government is now using MIG-29s to bomb villages. The conflict is worse than ever." One of Steidle's worst fears is that the government is revving up its killing machine to finish its grisly job before anyone can stop it.

Steidle, who is not Jewish, commends the Jewish community for its responsiveness to this cause, and credits Jewish groups for getting the city of Los Angeles and the State of California to divest from Sudan.

And though no Jews are involved directly in this genocide, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, founder and dean of Aish HaTorah, believes it is of Jewish concern: "The mission of the Jewish people is to perfect the world," Rabbi Weinberg says. "We are responsible for the entire world, and that includes Darfur. We are all God's children and we must feel their pain and take appropriate action. If the world doesn't care about genocide, if we can just sit back and not care while people are being slaughtered, we've lost our humanity and are on the road to chaos."

After his work on Darfur is finished, Steidle envisions himself going to other regions facing human rights calamities, such as Zimbabwe, "which is on nobody's radar screen now," he says, as well as Burma and the Congo, where 2 million people have been killed in ethnic violence. "Now I have better idea of what's needed in situations like this, and how to share it with the world. The question people need to ask themselves is: What person can turn their back on the victims of such hatred? When the genocide in Darfur has ended, what will you say you did to stop it?"

To help fight the genocide, go to, or call 1-800-GENOCIDE, where you can put in your zip code and be connected with your Congressional representative's office. The web site also lists cities where The Devil Came on Horseback documentary will be screened. You can also visit Brian Steidle's web site at

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