Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Devil Came on Horseback

‘The Devil Came on Horseback’ is not an easy film to watch. Documentaries in general run the risk of being pedantic, in my opinion, but that is not the reason why this particular film will be difficult to digest. For me, maybe it was the images of the rotting corpses, the dried blood, the burning villages and the images of the truly evil-looking militia, or janjaweed, who killed civilians in cold blood. Or maybe it was the jarring knowledge at the back of my mind that what I was viewing was not fiction or special effects, but actual images of death and devastation caused by people - not hundreds of years ago, but today. The same world in which I live myself, unharmed and untouched by the savagery on screen. Roughly translated from Arabic, janjaweedmeans ‘man with a gun on horseback’, but in the film we are told that it means ‘devil on horseback’, and hence the title.

I will be honest and say that prior to watching the film, my knowledge of the happenings in the Darfur region of Sudan was rudimentary at most. I’d seen bits and pieces of articles in newspapers or events that publicized, but that was about it. This film, with footage shot by former US Marine Captain Brian Steidle, served as a huge wake-up call. Activate interviewed Steidle post the release of ‘The Devil Came on Horseback’ and they have given a concise background of the events that mooted the making of the film, for those of you who are unfamiliar:

‘In 2004, Steidle spent six months as an unarmed military observer with the African Union to monitor the ceasefire of Sudan's decades-long civil war. But as the war between north and south cooled, the Arab-run government launched an ethnic-cleansing program, backing attacks on African blacks in Darfur by nomadic Arab militiamen known as the janjaweed. The regional politics are a complex mix of racial rivalries and resource grabs, but more perplexing, Steidle says, is the world's inaction.’

In 2005, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, a family friend of Steidle’s, helped publish his first-hand images of the genocide in Darfur. What followed were rallies and public events where Steidle spoke about what he’d seen in Sudan. The film shows all this, and follows Brian and his sister as they traveled to Chad later and spoke to some of the 250,000 people who had been displaced as a result of the genocide. Brian also went to Rwanda to see how the country was renewing itself after the equally devastating genocide there in 1994.

I can only imagine the emotional turmoil that Brian Steidle must have gone through as he witnessed the happenings in Darfur, and the courage and patience it must have taken to finally take his story to the public. (The Sudanese government tried to cross the border and capture Brian and his sister when they went to Chad, and when they were back in the US, he got notice through sources that they would try and kill him if he tried to return to Sudan.) As he said in the film, Rwanda was in 1994, over ten years before Darfur happened. The world should have learnt something then. But one can only postulate about what it did, because today we have Darfur to deal with.

As of today, Sudan has agreed to accept a joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force in the region, and we should be grateful for that. But is it, as Steidle says in his interview, too little, too late?

UPDATE: I found this article on Al-Jazeera's site just now - a Darfur militia leader has warned that if the UN has a 'colonial agenda', they will face stiff resistance.

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