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By Peter Kupfer

NEW YORK, 2 April 2008 — Everyone knows that something terrible is happening in Darfur, but few of us grasp the extent of the horror unfolding in that remote corner of Africa or the forces that have caused it. If you watch The Devil Came on Horseback, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern's searing documentary, you will know and you will never forget.

The tragedy of Darfur is viewed through the eyes of Brian Steidle, a former Marine Corps captain who takes a job to monitor a cease-fire in Sudan's 20-year civil war between the Arab-run government in the north and the predominantly Christian and Animist south. As an observer with the African Union, Steidle finds himself witness to the ruthless and systematic destruction of black African villages by government-sponsored Arab militias called Janjaweed - Arabic for "devil on horseback" - in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

The Devil Came On Horseback (2007)

The filmmakers draw upon hundreds of photographs and home movies Steidle smuggled out of Sudan, intercut with interviews and video footage obtained from renegade sources, to paint a haunting picture of Darfur's descent into hell. Sundberg and Stern don't shy away from showing the grisly aftermath of the Janjaweed's attacks - charred skeletons of children who were burned alive, mutilated bodies with eyes gouged out and ears slashed off, a bloody tire and axe apparently used to hack people to death. Yet, to their credit, they are judicious in their use of these gruesome images; they make their point without beating the viewer over the head or resorting to lurid sensationalism.

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
copyright © powerHouse Books
Photo courtesy of powerHouse Books

Some may question why the filmmakers chose to tell their story through the eyes of a Westerner. Is that not, in itself, a form of racism? I think not. Assuming that the point of the film is to educate people in the West about what is happening in Darfur, using an American observer to tell the story makes sense, particularly one who is as articulate and sympathetic as Steidle.

What makes his story especially compelling is that Steidle is no bleeding heart liberal. He's a veteran military man from a family with a long tradition of military service, and he's accustomed to seeing death and destruction at close range. Indeed, Steidle's motivation for taking the job in Sudan was that it promised the action and adventure his desk job in Washington lacked. So when he describes his anger and outrage at the genocidal slaughter in Darfur it carries more weight than if the story were being told by a political activist or professional "do-gooder."

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
copyright © powerHouse Books
Photo courtesy of powerHouse Books

It doesn't take Steidle long to realize that what he is witnessing was no ordinary conflict, but a systematic campaign to annihilate what the Sudanese government viewed as a lesser race. "There is no gray area. People are being killed because they are African, not Arab," he says. He describes his encounters with the Janjaweed in stark terms: they are "evil, evil people. They smile and shake your hand but you can see it in their eyes. It's like seeing the devil."

One of the most moving scenes in the film shows Steidle describing the futility he felt about being powerless to stem the violence he was witnessing. "We stood there for six months and watched people die … and I took pictures of them," he says. "I feel guilty … for not sticking my knife in the general's neck that's burning villages." The camera lingers on Steidle's face for several moments as he struggles to maintain his composure. Finally he turns away from the camera, buries his face in his hands and begins to cry.

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
copyright © powerHouse Books
Photo courtesy of powerHouse Books

The filmmakers deftly weave Steidle's pictures and observations with historical information about the region and the forces that conspired to create the current crisis. The statistics are chilling enough: since the crisis in Darfur began in 2003, 400,000 have died, nearly 3 million have been forced from their homes, and hundreds of thousands of others live in constant fear of the next Janjaweed attack. Sundberg and Stern provide sufficient information for viewers to understand the context of the conflict without overwhelming them with a deluge of mind-numbing details.

The filmmakers make a clear case that the Janjaweed are the instruments of the Arab-controlled government in Khartoum. The attacks often follow the same pattern: first the government turns off the cell phone towers so the villagers cannot call for help, then the Sudanese air force attacks with planes and helicopters, and finally the Janjaweed descend on horseback, killing, raping, and looting everything in their path before setting fire to the villages. In an interview, an Arab militiaman recalls the slogan the government instructed him to use during the attacks: "Kill the slaves! Kill the slaves!"

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
copyright © powerHouse Books
Photo courtesy of powerHouse Books

A little-known fact that emerges in the film is the role that China has played in the conflict. China provides much of the capital and expertise for Sudan's expanding oil industry and purchases 80 percent of the oil it produces. Profits from that partnership, the filmmakers assert, are largely financing the war in Darfur.

One could argue, I suppose, that The Devil Came on Horseback is one-sided. With the exception of a few clips of the Sudanese ambassador to the United Nations defending his government's actions, little attempt is made to present Khartoum's position. But when it comes to genocide can there ever be two sides of the story? By that standard one could argue that a documentary about the Holocaust or the Killing Fields would be incomplete without presenting the views of Hitler or Pol Pot.

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
copyright © powerHouse Books
Photo courtesy of powerHouse Books

The film chronicles Steidle's transformation from neutral observer to passionate advocate for the victims of genocide. After leaving Sudan he shared his photos with Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times and other journalists, testified before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and even met briefly with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But the slaughter in Darfur continues unabated, and Steidle cannot conceal his bitter disappointment. "I thought if the people of America could see what I've seen there would be troops here in a week," he says. "I was naive. They've seen it now and they've done nothing."

When an interviewer asks him how it feels to be a whistle-blower, Steidle is clearly taken aback. "I'm not a whistle-blower," he protests. "I'm just a guy who tried to wake up the conscience of a bunch of people."

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
copyright © powerHouse Books
Photo courtesy of powerHouse Books

Another powerful primer on the crisis in Darfur is contained in Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan, a collection of photographs and writings published by Powerhouse Books. The book approaches the subject with a wider lens than The Devil Came on Horseback, documenting the history of the people in the region and their long struggle against not only the Janjaweed but famine and disease.

It is a handsome volume, if one can ever describe heart-rending images of sick and starving refugees as handsome. One of the more haunting pictures shows the dark, nubby head of a young boy protruding from a soiled white blanket covered with flies.

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
copyright © powerHouse Books
Photo courtesy of powerHouse Books

There are stirring words as well. Documentary photographer Colin Finlay describes his arrival in Ajep, in southern Sudan, with appropriately spare eloquence: "I stepped off a small prop plane and fell into another world … Over the edge of reality, the edge of sanity, the edge of civilization, I found a gaping hole filled with people the world no longer wanted."

All images used with permission

Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan
Edited by Leora Kahn
Jon Alter (Introduction)
Photographers: Colin Finlay, Ron Haviv, Kadir Van Lohuizen, Pep Bonnet
Hardcover: 120 pages
powerHouse Books (June 2007)
ISBN-13: 9781576873854

The Devil Came On Horseback (2007)
Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur
Brian Steidle
Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern, directors

Format: Color, DVD-Video, NTSC
Language: English, Arabic
Studio: International Film Circuit / Break Thru Films

Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National / Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Asian Art News and other publications. He last wrote on Dining Out in Charleston, South Carolina for

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