The Devil rides past its opposition

The apathy inspired by the genocide in Darfur leaves motivating up to journalists.

Becky Lang

Set among a backdrop of dry grass, burnt thatched-roof huts and countless dead bodies, “The Devil Came on Horseback” documents the struggle of Brian Steidle, a retired marine who was stationed in Sudan to observe the Naivasha Agreement, which sought to end the civil war between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the government of Sudan. Rather than diplomacy, he found himself powerless and frustrated in front of a genocide that had not been properly acknowledged by the Western world. The title refers to the translation of the “janjaweed,” the Sudanese-sponsored armed soldiers that are in the process of wiping out all of the black citizens of Darfur. A&E talks with director Annie Sundberg about the politics and tribulations behind this film.

“The Devil Came on Horseback”

Directed by: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Rated: Not Rated
Showing at: Bell Auditorium, Oct. 17

The film has been criticized for framing the story around a white American rather than focusing on the locals. Can you explain your methodology?

I feel that Brian is an incredibly legitimate voice. If he had been Libyan, Egyptian or French, and had the same photos, I would have been thrilled. I was looking for someone who had direct access to Darfur in a neutral capacity, and that was Brian. The fact that he is a white American just makes it easier for an American audience to relate. He didn’t go there to do good, but for a paid job. In addition, we do have refugee testimony and voices of the locals, as well as women’s voices. It’s not just a white take on Africa.

Why do you think the state department requested that Brian not show his pictures?

The United States has an interesting relationship with the Sudanese government. First of all, because Brian is a former military man, it’s assumed that he’s a representation of the U.S. Army. Whether or not there’s any new intelligence, there’s a long relation between the U.S. and Khartoum. Bashir and his intelligence group may give info about opposing training camps to us. We also want to uphold the idea that there are good negotiations between the North and South after the recent treaty. But the U.S. has become more forceful in the last few months, which is good.

How did you decide it was best to show Brian’s transition from trusting his operation to being disappointed by the lack of initiative in the U.S. army?

It really exemplifies the burden of the witness, which is that he is incredibly intelligent, compassionate and also a marine, so he’s used to seeing things happen definitively and quickly. The frustration was tangible for him, like “can’t someone take action on this?” He ended up becoming part of this mission, and after the initial press wave, where very little happened, he had a sense of despair and frustration. It was important that he went back to the refugee camp because he got to see people who received help. It was energizing to see that, and it gives you new hope that people might get to go home again. Now it’s phase two, where the people in refugee camps in Chad are dying of disease, starvation, and other issues.

Congressmen have made comments suggesting that if there were oil to be found in Darfur that the United States would head right in, but I noticed that Sudan is often described as an “oil-rich nation.” Could you clear up that sentiment at all?

I think a lot of people speculate that there’s oil there, but there’s no clear claim for that. Sudan’s oil output, compared to Saudi Arabia, is practically nil. Their economy is dependent on sending oil to China. It’s true that it’s not worth it for us to go into Sudan for oil. As for people that reduce the U.S. lack of involvement to oil, I think it’s complicated much more by the fact that Bashir has a fundamentalist Islamic government, and we are generally unable to have leadership in Islamic countries.

How do you think a U.S. intervention would differ from one conducted by the U.N.?

The problem with the U.N. is that China has helped Sudan economically to an incredible extent. [China supports Sudan by purchasing much of its oil.] It’s going to be a matter of really putting pressure on China. Their support is really aiding the crisis.

Could we ever go in unilaterally?

We could never go in unilaterally. I don’t think we’ve ever suggested it. I think we are overextended with our commitments in Iraq. If we went into a Muslim country, we’d create a wave of insurgencies, much like in Iraq. We are working with the U.N. on a peacekeeping force. If we can send an envoy in Sudan, we could learn to negotiate with one voice. But we are never going to have boots on the ground; Brian wouldn’t advocate that either. It would create too many problems. (President) Bashir is a spin master. He has made any Western attempts on Sudan look like imperialism.

ABC covered Darfur’s crisis for only 11 minutes last year. Why do you think this tragedy had such difficulty reaching mainstream audiences?

I think that you look at major news networks now, and they’re very much driven as entertainment entities. I personally don’t get my news from network news. I get it from papers, online and from the radio. Documentarians are taking longer looks, with investigative Ö I don’t want to say integrity, but analysis. Either way, information is getting out. I was happy to see a response to human rights violations in Burma (Myanmar). If we respond to these events, the U.S. could still have global leadership. But for network news, those are not very sexy topics.

Do you think there is going to be a divide between network news and documentarians, where the responsibility of in-depth analysis is going to be primarily designated to films?

News has investigative stories for about 12 minutes. Documentaries explore things for about 90. There are a lot of responsibilities for these filmmakers, but I think it’s really cool that there’s a developing audience for these types of films. I just don’t see hard-hitting investigative journalists on TV, and it makes me really sad.

Recently the government in Myanmar cut off all phone and internet communication. How do you believe journalists should react to government attempts to remain isolated from the information world?

That’s a tough one. Some people are looking at setting up television satellite stations in refugee camps in Chad. Even in Sudan people were unaware of what happened in Darfur. Other countries in Africa don’t always know what is going on. You can take photos, make phone calls, and send it in seconds.

What is the next step we should take?

Individuals in the U.S. should start flooding the Chinese embassy with phone calls. Let them know we are concerned. The “peaceful” Olympic games next year are being run by people that are aiding this genocide in Darfur. The new U.N. peacekeeping force should be on the ground in the next 3-4 months. It’s not going to be easy. It goes back to British colonial division. It goes back to lines drawn between ethnic groups. This is a country that, ever since independence, has been in one form of civil struggle or unrest. It’s going to come slowly.