The Devil Came on Horseback is named for the janjaweed (the word translates to "devil on horseback"), and it means to upset you.
My heart went out to them. I wanted to give them a sign of hope that their lives might soon get better. I am resolved -- completely resolved -- that our work here will make this happen.
-- U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, at the Al Salaam refugee camp (6 September 2007)
In 2004, Brian Steidle went to Darfur. At the time, he says in The Devil Came on Horseback, he was looking for a way to do good. As photos show him as a child and young man in uniform, the former marine captain recalls that, having grown up in a military family, he didn't want to ride a desk for seven years, just waiting to become a battalion officer. And so he found a job on the internet: "Patrol leader, Sudan."
He spent a year as an unarmed military observer with the U.N., assigned to monitor the "ceasefire" from September 2004 to September 2005. "All I had," he says, "was a camera, a pencil, and paper. I was totally unprepared for what I'd see." And with that, the documentary, by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, proceeds to show you what he saw -- bodies burned, dismembered, defiled, and bloodied, bodies of children, women, and men. It's a stunning array of images, and it's only the beginning. While he was in country, unarmed and instructed not to interfere with local activities, Steidle took pictures and notes and wrote reports, compiling what might best be described as an onslaught of information, proof of the genocide the U.S. administration named as such in September 2004. At the time, some 50,000 people were killed and a million made homeless by the janjaweed, a militia funded and armed by the Sudanese government in Khartoum. Today, as of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's visit to the region, Reuters reports that 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million are displaced. (Khartoum says only 9,000 people have died.)
How did this happen, given U.S. and U.N. recognition of the violence three years ago? What has been done, following the documentation provided by famous people who traveled with camera crews, from George Clooney to Mia Farrow to Don Cheadle? How is it that the killing and abuses can go on unchecked?
These are the questions posed by The Devil Came on Horseback. If the film offers no answers, it does present Steidle's profoundly personal journey by way of re-making the case against Khartoum and especially, against international inaction. In between reenacted inserts of Steidle with camera in hand or driving across the desert, the film outlines the calamitous history he was walking into: a map of Sudan and a brief breakdown of the participants, namely, the janjaweed (originally operating in Northern and Western Darfur), as a means to combat two rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), who, Steidle says, only wanted to ensure African citizens' access to resources and rights that the Arab militias so brutally denied them.
When General Omar Al Bashir seized control of Sudan in 1989, he also claimed the oil pipelines ("Sudan," narrates Steidle, "doesn’t have the expertise or the capital to drill for its own oil, so it relies on China"). In order to expedite the recovery of oil, the government ordained that the land be "cleared of people." The janjaweed, "paid in loot," as Steidle puts it, came up with heinous and overtly racist means of oppression, including displacement, rape, and murder. Though the U.N. early on worried about the Beijing-Khartoum alliance, it has persisted, and the janjaweed has been absorbed into the Sudan Armed Forces and expanded into Eastern Darfur and Chad.
The Devil Came on Horseback is named for the janjaweed (the word translates to "devil on horseback"), and it means to upset you. To this end, it presents Steidle's photos and very vocal frustrations. "Here we are down in hell," he says over images of burning homes and strewn carcasses, "Where it's happening, it's going on. We receive complaints of violations of the ceasefire, we investigate and make recommendations. We'd send our reports and something magical was supposed to happen." But nothing happened. He recounts sending some 80 reports, and the American embassy says they received about four of them. Watching an attack on the village of Um Zaifa, he says, "I was just taking pictures with my camera the whole time," and you see the results. "If we'd had a mandate to defend these people and if I was looking through a scope instead of through the lens of my camera, these vehicles would be done. these people could return to their villages and be safe."
Instead, and repeatedly, Steidle and his fellow monitors are left feeling helpless. At last, he says, it's too much. "I am tired of investigating what every day is murders, rapes, counting dead bodies, counting shot, wounded children." Again, the images are insistent and brutal, the film making Steidle's personal anguish yours. When he does return to the States, he hesitates to make the photos and documents public, but then, encouraged by his sister Gretchen (founder of Global Grassroots), he shows them to the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof. The newspaper publishes the photos, Steidle testifies in DC, and meets Condoleezza Rice.
In another (fiction) film, this might be the turning point toward triumph, but the documentary tracks another story, Steidle's ongoing effort to make his fellow citizens care about the genocide. As a step in that effort, The Devil Came on Horseback is extraordinarily moving. The film might be forgiven for some of its unsubtle tactics, as when lingers on Steidle's visible pain or follows a refugee around a corner even as he's walking away from an interview with Steidle. The man pauses, staggering under the weight of the story he's just told, and the image of his back, so exposed, feels almost invasive. If they make you wince, such moments are doing the work they need to do.