Spectator to Genocide

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on March 29, 2005

(by Priya Abraham, WorldMag.com) SUDAN – Brian Steidle’s only weapons against mass killing were his pen, paper, and camera. The former Marine captain catalogs what they caught in Darfur, Sudan, with quick-fire urgency: toddlers with their faces smashed in, men castrated and left to bleed to death, charred bodies of villagers locked in huts later burned down. Charged only with monitoring ceasefire violations in the war-wracked region, he soon grew weary of playing spectator to genocide.

So after six months, the 28-year-old Mr. Steidle returned to the United States a month ago and launched his own offensive to stop the killing. In mid-March he criss-crossed Washington, meeting with lawmakers and Bush administration officials and sandwiching media appearances in between. His eyewitness accounts–bolstered by hundreds of photographs–provide some of the most damning evidence yet of the Sudanese government’s murderous campaign against the Darfuris.

Darfur’s conflict began two years ago, when the Islamic government launched an ethnic-cleansing campaign against blacks. It backed Arab militias called the Janjaweed, which cleared out villages, raped women, and plundered livestock. With rebel groups fighting back, the conflict has killed some 300,000 and displaced a further 2 million from their homes. And as far as Mr. Steidle could see, the attacks have not abated, despite international scoldings and a ceasefire signed a year ago.

Mr. Steidle, one of three U.S. military observers on contract with the African Union, is part of a monitoring and protection force that can neither prevent nor fight an attack nor shield its intended victims. The African Union has almost 2,000 monitors in Darfur. Its only mandate is to protect civilian contractors and write reports.

The earnest-looking Mr. Steidle speaks determinedly about stopping the violence in Darfur. He first went to Sudan in January 2004, working on the North-South ceasefire with the U.S. military. Within months he went from team leader to senior operations officer, and soon found himself in Darfur. But even southern Sudan, emerging from a 20-year civil war, equipped him little for the almost daily atrocities he saw in Darfur.

Relegated to scribe, Mr. Steidle mapped the general pattern of attacks. First the government shut down cell-phone systems so villagers could not warn each other of a coming attack. Government-owned Antonov aircraft then flew over a village doing reconnaissance. Helicopter gunships soon followed, firing purposefully on terrified and scattering Darfuris. That the aim was to kill and wound civilians was evident, Mr. Steidle said, in their use of anti-personnel rockets. Each rocket contained 500 flashettes, small nails with stabilizing fins to make sure their point punctured the target first. He saw one child hit by the devices. His wounds, Mr. Steidle said, looked like “someone would have shredded your back with a cheese grater.”

After the aerial strafing, militiamen known as Janjaweed invaded the villages, killing as many inhabitants as they could and dispersing the rest. To delay any return, the militiamen usually set fire to food stores and tampered with water wells. That way, villagers could never be sure if their desert lifeline had been poisoned. Then the militiamen looted what was left behind, piling mattresses, furniture, bicycles–often the villagers’ only possessions–onto waiting government trucks. “One of the most amazing things about this is if you talk to the Janjaweed, they accept that this is payment,” Mr. Steidle told a gathering at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on March 18.

The Janjaweed then burned villages to the ground. Mr. Steidle saw no difference between the government’s actions and theirs: One supported the other. “We looked at them as if they were two different units of the army,” he said. “The regular army, with special forces [working] at the same time.” The Janjaweed also divided into the “Mujahideen battalion,” who were paid and always wore uniforms, and a mercenary-like group that received payment more often via looting.

Even the African Union monitors Mr. Steidle traveled with in South Darfur were not always safe. One of their well-marked, white helicopters was shot at in December while monitors were on their way to investigate new violence. The Sudanese forces also devised ways to thwart what little authority the monitors had. The government was not allowed to make troop movements without first notifying the African Union and obtaining its permission. Once the division commander in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, complied in part and wrote a letter saying that he was going to reestablish his troop positions.

“He was basically giving us notification that he was going to attack a village,” Mr. Steidle said. “And that’s exactly what he did. The next day they attacked a village.” Often when the African Union tried to investigate such attacks, fuel for their helicopters suddenly became unavailable. The government fuel company offered bland excuses: “We are out of fuel” or “Our fuel pumps are broken.” Sudanese helicopters, however, were never deprived enough to stop their aerial attacks. Sudanese troops also skirted around their movement restrictions by shuttling around Darfur “escorting” fuel convoys, supposedly to ensure their safe passage.

Villagers who managed to flee the violence have not found sanctuary in internal displacement camps. Sprawling camps often shelter tens of thousands of Darfuris, who duck under squalid shacks made from sticks and plastic bags where disease and malnutrition are thrusting mortality figures higher. If they live on the periphery, they are still open to Janjaweed raids.

The government also has not relented: Officials announce they must relocate refugees to new camps, then use bulldozers to flatten existing settlements, often in the middle of the night and without warning. On one such occasion they did not allow Western media photographers to snap pictures, ripping the memory cards from their digital cameras. Mr. Steidle, however, was able to keep his and record the abuse.

As it stands, the African Union has too few monitors and too few powers to stop the killing. Mr. Steidle said the most violent months of the whole conflict were in December and January, but he has learned quieter periods do not signal the end. He estimates Darfur, which is about the size of France, needs some 50,000 African Union troops with an expanded mandate authorizing them to protect civilians and secure roads for humanitarian aid. That is roughly the same figure another seasoned witness to genocide offered: former General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN peacekeeping mission to Rwanda in 1994. Crucial in the short run, Mr. Steidle believes, are weapons sanctions against Khartoum and a no-fly zone over Darfur.

Even with its weakness, Mr. Steidle has seen the good even small AU forces can accomplish. After an attack on the town of Labado, which had a population of 20,000, a Sudanese general said his mission was to clear the road all the way to Khartoum, several hundreds of miles away. Knowing that the village of Mujaheryia would be next in line–which had double the inhabitants of Labado–the African Union stationed 35 soldiers there to protect civilian contractors.

Even this gesture deterred the government and Janjaweed, making up a few thousand soldiers, from attacking. The AU then deployed 70 protection-force soldiers and 10 military observers to Labado, drawing back 3,000 villagers within a week. “I was very impressed with them,” Mr. Steidle said. “They have ownership of this mission, they want to help their fellow Africans.”

Nonetheless, the African Union still needs logistical aid and training, and probably NATO-quality troops to augment their mission if they are to be effective, said Sudan expert Eric Reeves. Part of the problem is Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo, mediator between Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government. He stated Darfur is an “African” problem meant for Africa to solve alone, and recently claimed conditions are improving in the region even as they deteriorate.

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers introduced the Darfur Accountability Act in March, which calls for the arms embargo and African Union assistance Mr. Steidle advocates. While the act is worth backing, Mr. Reeves said, it is unclear how much the United States is willing to act unilaterally. “Congress is not an ideal means of responding to foreign crises,” he told WORLD. “I think it’s a sign of how far from the front burner Darfur has slipped for Bush.” Successive UN Security Council resolutions have also failed to rein in the Sudanese government.

Mr. Steidle hopes raising Americans’ awareness will help dispel international torpor over Darfur. A self-described Navy brat with no “home port,” he currently lives on a sailboat in Annapolis, Md. Now he is on a publicity mission he believes cannot afford to fail.

Copyright 2005 WORLD Magazine, April 2nd, 2005. Reprinted here March 29th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.


For a history of Sudan, click here.