JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Devil Came on Horseback (Directors: Annie Sundberg, Ricki Stern) - June 24, 2008
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The Devil Came on Horseback

4.5 4.5
85 min.

There's no death like it

School yard bullies, once caught, face consequences ranging from detention to expulsion. Gang thugs, once arrested, face various types of probation or jail time. Rogue nations, once armed and attacking innocent neighbours, face the combined might of one or more of the world’s strategic alliances. But when a country slaughters its own, those civil wars are watched passively—internal disputes are best left alone in case the wrong “side” emerges victorious and imposes sanctions on those governments who backed the losing horse. (And where would the U.S. be without its defining years of internal carnage?)

And so to Darfur. At the most simplistic level, it’s the battle of brown vs. black/Arabs against Africans. The Khartoum government seems nonplussed by the pillage, rape and massacres committed by the Janjaweed (literally, “devil on a horse”), who are frequently seen in the company of government troops and whose weaponry and supplies must come from somewhere …. The ill-equipped Sudanese Liberation Army is no match for loot-driven rebels that don’t expect an official investigation of their activities any time soon.

Former Marine Captain Brian Steidle becomes the eyes and ears of a desperate situation in this disturbing documentary by Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern. The naïve soldier exchanges his rifle for a camera and travels to Sudan in 2004 to begin a contract as a military monitor of the recently signed ceasefire—a few pieces of paper which, apparently, put an end to the two-decade civil war.

His gig doesn’t include Darfur directly, but when the African Union is empowered to take an on-the-ground look at the growing reports of atrocities in the western region of Sudan, Steidle volunteers to assist. And so begins his tour of hell where he chronicles death and destruction that few could imagine. There’s no oil pipeline in Darfur (that’s further east—built and protected by the Chinese to help feed their insatiable addiction to fossil fuels and repression of human rights) so despite telling his story to the world (first via an Op/Ed-with-photos piece by Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times), the initial outrage fades in a commercial twinkle of George Bush’s eye. Why spend billions to save innocent lives when there’s no measurable payoff? Despite hoping that the story would spark immediate action and the accompanying photos would “nag at people,” nothing changed.

Disappointed but determined, Steidle soon heads for Chad with Gretchen (his older sister, confidante, and Chairman, Founder & President of Global Grassroots) to visit the refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of displaced Darfurians have fled. Here, the survivors recall the death of loved ones and the tactic of using rape (euphemistically referred to as violence) as a tool. But their own lives and sexual dignity are still at risk when venturing beyond the squalid camps in search of scarce firewood.

Back Stateside, Steidle becomes a spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition and begins touring the country to give speeches to small audiences in hopes that if those present write to their congressmen and tell their neighbours, then action will finally be taken. (Just what that might be is never made clear.)

The rally on the Mall (Washington, D.C.) is a great success in terms of turnout (including Senator Barack Obama who voices his outrage and support for an intervention) and slogans (“Smoke the Janjaweed, Save Darfur”), but still nothing happens.

A trip to Rwanda—12 years later—to learn how to end genocide (even when the “g” word was proclaimed by Colin Powell et al, nothing happened) fills the screen with the lime-preserved bones of the helpless victims. A visit to the International Criminal Court in The Hague offers the promise by prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo to find enough evidence to charge those who were most responsible and bring them to justice. When the first case is announced (December 2006) the Sudanese Ambassador to the United Nations, Abdelmahmood Abdelhaleem, dismisses the charges as “politically motivated.”

The film, like most other media discussing the issue, gives its call to action in a moving and emotional manner. Paul Brill’s score—particularly the English horn innocence during a dusty soccer match of kids—reinforces the travesties with subtle distinction. To balance the chilling reality of the powerful having their unabated way with the miserably weak, the faces of carefree children mugging into the camera are welcome balms on the wounds of systemic depravity. But didn’t all of those behind these horrific acts begin life as sweet souls too? JWR

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