(2007) dir. Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
Janjaweed = “devil on horseback”, so defines the title of this frightening documentary about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, as witnessed by an American ex-Marine Captain who is situated there as an “observer” of the “ceasefire” for the African Union. The janjaweed, for those who don’t keep up with the news, are comprised nomadic Arabic-speaking African tribemen, who, funded by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, have been systematically raping and killing the villagers and villages of Darfur, burning whole villages to the ground, murdering everyone that they can. On horseback or not, it’s about as vile as humanity gets.
The ex-Marine captain is Brian Steidle, and the story is really largely one from his perspective. Coming from a long line of military, Steidle served his stint and, shunning a desk job, took the opportunity to be an observer in Sudan of the “ceasefire” between the north and the south, the cessation of a civil war that lasted for more than two decades. Armed with a camera only, Steidle played witness to the absolute horrors and evil that the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed took out on the people of Darfur, unquestionably a systematic “ethnic cleansing” and genocide. Steidle hoped that his photographs and reports to the African Union would bring about change, but as they didn’t, he left Sudan and returned home.
Still deeply troubled by the events that to which he bore witness, he was eventually convinced to share his photographs with the world via The New York Times. The reaction to the images was swift, pulling him onto talk shows, presenting to Congress, meeting with Condoleeze Rice and many others. While the reaction was swift, the action was non-existent.
Much against Steidle’s very rigorously pro-American, pro-military, pro-government upbringing, he, along with his sister, evolved into an activist. Speaking at rallies, presenting his experience to anyone who would listen, he strove harder and harder to try to get some military action to protect the people of Darfur from their goverment and their militias. And nothing substantial has ever happened.
Toward the end of the film, he and his sister visit Chad and Rwanda. In Chad, they work with his sister’s organization that looks to help people displaced by these actions. And in Rwanda, he looks to find an answer to how to change the situation in looking at the aftermath of a similar genocide only 12 years earlier. He is left in tears.
In the end, he presents his documentations and his story to the U.N. court in The Hague, Netherlands, hoping that if not through rallying the people to force the governments to take action, that perhaps through the indictment of the leadership for war crimes can perhaps bring about the change.
The horrors of the reality is almost unfathomable. For us as viewers, here in our homes. In the pictures, in the facts and stories, in the faces of the people. For Steidle, having been right in the midst of it, with nothing but a camera, while the horrors were unleashed with no way of stopping it, the reality utterly changed him. His dedication is noble. The evil, and that is not a word that I use frequently, but the evil of the actions is loathsome. It sickens the soul.