The unlikely activist
Former US marine Brian Steidle doesn’t seem the type to break
ranks. But when he returned from a peacekeeping mission to Sudan, he found he couldn’t stay quiet about the horrors
he had witnessed. His outrage brought Darfur to America‘s attention – and helped pave the way for new UN
action. Dan Glaister meets him
Monday August 6, 2007
Steidle is now lobbying Hollywood to make a movie about Darfur. Photograph: Dan Tuffs
If you saw Brian Steidle on the street in Los
Angeles, you wouldn’t give him a second glance.
Dressed the day we meet in the city’s Venice district in regulation T-shirt,
shades and cargos, he looks much like all the other gym-fit, cropped-haired
young men loafing about somewhere between college and middle age. Which is
precisely his strength.
Three years ago, fresh out of serving with the US
marines in Kosovo and elsewhere, Steidle saw a job opening for a US
monitor attached to the African Union peacekeeping mission in the Sudan.
"I had no idea," he says. "I was looking for some adventure. My
goal was to make money, to have a good time making it and to retire early."
Without knowing it, he was heading into a genocide in the
making – and towards becoming an unlikely, but highly effective, campaigner.
The result is that alongside the big players such as Washington and Beijing,
whose political calculations lie behind the new Security Council agreement to
send an international force to Sudan’s conflict zone, it is a small player in
the person of Steidle – with his everyman demeanor and eyewitness evidence –
who crucially set the stage by helping to make Sudan’s government-sponsored
slaughter a cause du jour in the United States.
At first, Steidle’s Sudan
job was a breeze, running a team of three which monitored and reported on the
relatively tranquil life of the people of the Nuba mountains. But after seven
months, he went to Darfur, a then-obscure region in the
west of the African nation, a region about to become infamous for some of the
most brutal repression seen on the continent. The conflict, pitting Arab
Muslims backed by the Sudanese government against black African Muslims, has
claimed an estimated 400,000 lives since it broke out in early 2003.
"I was blown away by what I saw [in Darfur],
because nobody knew about it. Not even us, in the same country, 300km
away." What he saw is detailed in The Devil Came on Horseback, the book he
went on to co-write with his sister Gretchen.
It opens with the heartbreaking account of Steidle’s moment of awakening,
when he comes upon a baby girl who has been shot in the back but is still
alive, being dispassionately offered up to him by her aunt. Steidle does his
job: he asks questions about the incident, takes photographs, goes on his way.
As soon as his African Union helicopter takes off he begins to berate himself.
Why did he not break the rules of his mission and take the girl with him? What
would become of her? It is, he writes, the greatest regret of his life, and his
recent book is an attempt to make amends.
Which raises the question of whether there is any point in using unarmed
observers to monitor ceasefires. Undermanned and underfunded, the African
Union’s Darfur mission is a case in point, as the
Security Council’s belated establishment of a fully fledged mission seems to
Steidle writes that even when the African Union monitors knew the location
and timing of impending attacks, no action was taken. Instead, bureaucratic
processes prevailed: incidents were logged, reports filed, suppers eaten. He
tells the story of how his warnings of an imminent attack by the
government-sponsored Janjaweed militia on the village
of Hamada were dismissed by one of
his commanding officers with the words: "How is it you think you can
predict what the Janjaweed will do?" A few days later 107 of the 450
villagers, he writes, were "tortured and murdered. Bodies were strewn
along blood-soaked village paths. Infants had been crushed. "
Three years later, Steidle still sounds angry. "We could publish no
reports, or lots of reports, and it would still go on," he says. The
self-serving dynamic of the monitoring mission even extended to what, in Steidle’s
eyes, were significant discoveries. He once found himself at an al-Qaida
training camp, a legacy of the days when Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan,
surrounded by jumpy men bearing Kalashnikovs. "I got the guys’ names, took
pictures of them, had the GPS coordinates," he says, clicking his fingers
with each point. "I thought, wow, this is going to be big news.
Nothing." With hindsight, Steidle understands why nobody moved against the
camp: "They would just pop up somewhere else . . . So it’s better for us
to watch, until we get the head guys. "
Whatever the justifications, the impotence of watching the situation worsen
– the helicopters taking off loaded with weapons for the government-sponsored
killing squads and returning empty a few hours later, the discovery of rockets
adapted to carry tear gas, the catalogue of bodies and villages burned –
eventually led Steidle to leave Sudan. Marginalised by a new commander, he
decided to take the more than 1,000 photographs he had gathered, along with
witness statements, and go home.
"I wanted to forget about it, go hide out in the woods. I thought I’d
be watching this on CNN or the BBC, but it wasn’t there. So that’s when I
thought, OK, let’s share it." He took his material – including stark
aerial pictures of burning villages, the likes of which the US
had never seen from Darfur – to the New York Times and
then to just about any media outlet that would look and listen, as well as
members of congress and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
Among the hundreds of thousands of US soldiers and support staff who have
served overseas in the past decade and a half – in the Kuwait war, in Bosnia,
in Afghanistan, and now in Iraq – Steidle is one of a handful who have take
action back home over the catastrophic plight of the people they left behind.
His military training – he grew up in a military family, and says he knew from
an early age that he wanted to serve in the Marines – prevents him from
speaking ill of his elected superiors, but the frustration is obvious: "We
should have stopped this a long time ago."
When we speak again, after last week’s decision by the UN to send a
peacekeeping force with a mandate to protect civilians, he sounds a bit more
cheerful. "It’s a big step in the right direction," he says by phone
from San Francisco. "We’ve got
to make sure that the UN has the authority to protect civilians and villages,
that they have the proper mandate. But at the same time there are a lot of
other things that could be implemented" – such as keeping pressure on China,
initiating prosecution at the International Criminal Court, making sure
Khartoum suffers consequences if it obstructs the UN.
Despite his mistrust of Khartoum,
he doesn’t seem to think it has been let off lightly. "Concessions have
been made," he says, "but all the key countries have said that if Sudan
does not honour them, they will undertake the next step."
While Steidle’s campaigning ignited US
public awareness of the Darfur genocide, it also
alienated aid agencies and some elements in the State Department, which feel
his outspokenness has harmed their mission.
"I was told by a state department official that the agencies can’t get
visas in a timely manner because of me," he says. "I was like, too
bad. You have to wait two weeks instead of 48 hours? Too bad. The world should
have known about a genocide." He cites the recent resignation of the
director of the Save Darfur Coalition, the broad-based advocacy group that has
spearheaded the high-profile campaign in the US,
as evidence of the Sudanese government’s success in intimidating the aid
agencies into silence. "We can provide food and tents forever, it’s not
going to stop the situation. It has to go hand in hand with advocacy."
Steidle plans to keep on going. A documentary based on his experiences and
using some of his pictures, is showing in the US,
and has been bought by the BBC to air later this year in its Storyville
As with so much to do with action over Darfur, the
model for the next stage of Steidle’s protest is Rwanda:
he is in California lobbying
studios to make a feature film. "Feature films reach millions of people.
Even if you haven’t seen Blood Diamond you know what it’s about. The same with
Hotel Rwanda. Hollywood is a great
tool." Steidle has talked to Don Cheadle, star of Hotel Rwanda and a big
voice in the Darfur campaign, as well as Steven
Spielberg, who used his clout as an artistic adviser to the 2008 Beijing
Olympics to urge China
to reappraise its oil-fuelled relationship with the government of Sudan.
I ask Steidle what stays with him from Sudan.
Instead of an atrocity story, he talks about the time he and a documentary crew
were talking to Darfur refugees in Chad.
"When we interviewed the people," he says, "we’d put the camera
on them and say, all right, now speak to America,
tell them directly what you want. And they’d look at the camera and they’d say,
thank you for everything you’ve done for us".
… sigo esperando al verdadero