For six months, photographer photographer Brian Steidle — a former Marine — bore witness to one of the world's worst tragedies — the ongoing genocide conducted by the Sudanese government against its own people, a slaughter of the young and the old and the innocent, a mass execution of some half-million people in the Darfur region. He watched. He learned. He took pictures.
The subject of a new film on his experience, "The Devil Came on Horseback," Brian returned to the United States with a message of sadness, yes, but also one of hope.
He recently sat down with MTV News to give us a brief history of the conflict, discuss some of the atrocities he witnessed and explain how we can help to make a difference.
On the basics:
"Darfur is a western region within the country of Sudan, Sudan being the largest country in Africa, south of Egypt.
"Right now in Darfur there's an ongoing genocide. Within the country there are 450,000 to 500,000 people who have been killed; 2.5 to 3 million have been displaced from their homes out of a population of around 7 million."
On the reasons why:
"The [Arab] government came into power in 1989 and started to oppress the African population within their country. They [didn't] give them equal rights or equal development on their lands.
"So, in 2003 [these African groups] attacked the government. Because of that the government now targets these individuals [but also] the tribes and villages that support them. And so they've unleashed these Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed (which literally translates to "a devil on a horse"), and they've trained them, armed them and given them free reign to kill anyone they want to.
"These Arab tribes believe that they're better, and they're specifically targeting these African groups within Darfur to try to wipe them out."
[Ed. note: The descriptions in the next six paragraphs are very graphic.]
"The Janjaweed militias don't distinguish at all between whether it's a baby, a woman or whether it's a man. The difference is what they do to them. If it's a man they're often castrated and then executed. Sometimes sexually assaulted before being executed.
"They take kids and throw them in the air and catch them on bayonets. They smash little kids' faces in. They will take the children from the mothers and throw them into the huts while they're burning so that [the mothers] can hear the children screaming. There have been stories of women who have been pregnant and have been cut open and had the babies taken out.
"One of the first photographs I took while I was there was of this 1-year-old girl who'd been shot in the back. It was a little baby. Her mother had been running away when she was gunned down by the government. [She] had whip marks on the side of [her] face."
On fates worse than death:
"The women are often gang-raped. They're then usually marked with a slash to the inner thigh. They usually let them live. They use gang rape to ensure pregnancy, so that that woman will carry an Arab child. They're trying to kill them or breed them out.
"If they're pregnant and they're not married, they are often arrested for having sex outside of marriage and tossed into jail where they are sexually assaulted for being raped. If they are married, often their husbands and their families will leave them, so they are left alone. These women often believe that the characteristics of the father will be brought into the child, so they feel that it's their duty to not allow that child to live. So when these children are born they'll often take them into the desert and leave them, or toss them down latrines. It's a way to destroy an entire community of people.
"The Sudanese government has moved into what we're calling phase two of their operations. Phase one was destroying the population, burning 90 percent of the villages to the ground, displacing all of these individuals into refugee camps. And now, phase two of the operation is denying aid groups from reaching the population. Out of that 2.5 million [displaced people], more than a 1 million are unreachable."
On how it affects us:
"It doesn't. Basically we could sit back and allow the rest of the people in Darfur to die and it wouldn't affect us directly at all. [But] do we stand back and allow a genocide of the 21st century to exist on our earth?"
On what the U.S. should do:
"I don't think that the U.S. should deploy troops to Sudan. It would look as if the United States was invading another Islamic country. I think it should be a U.N. mission, or even a NATO mission. The U.S. can involve themselves logistically, communications-wise we can provide intelligence support, and if they get in trouble we can help them out. The U.S. can support that."
On what an individual can do:
"There's a lot of mutual-fund companies out there, state and city pension plans that are invested in companies that are complicit in this genocide — companies that are supporting the Sudanese government, funding them to kill their own people. By divesting it means selling those shares, pulling it out, smartly investing in a company that practices moral business. That's a tremendous tool because we don't just put pressure on our government, we put pressure on the economics of the country."
On what you can do:
"What can one person do? Let your elected officials know. If one person were to call their senator, nothing would happen, but if everybody were to do it we could stand up as a voice. That's the key: together.
"There's a [new] tool, a phone number, 1-800-GENOCIDE. When you call you enter your zip code and by pushing 1, 2, 3 or 4, you're connected to your governor, your senator, your representative or the White House, and you can tell them that you want them to do more about Darfur.
"The youth that are not of voting age yet can educate themselves, educate their parents who are of voting age. Tell them what's going on. Besides that there are a number of humanitarian organizations on the ground and [people] can support those. I work closely with one, Global Grassroots. Spend 15 minutes on the Internet and you can find hundreds and hundreds of pages on Darfur."
On why we shouldn't despair:
"I think we should have a sense of hope because these people on the ground have a tremendous amount of hope, and they have a tremendous amount of hope in America. Not the world, not the European Union, but they have a tremendous amount of hope in the United States. They look at us as the good people. We do have the capability to stop it and we can do something about it."