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The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur

The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur by Brian Steidle and Gretchen Steidle Wallace. Public Affairs/Perseus, 2007, 230 pp.

So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth.

—Revelations 6:8 (NKJV)

As Sudan contemplated its North-South political referendum in January 2011, there remained another story of butchery, starvation, and pestilence vexing Sudan’s Darfur. There is genocide in Darfur that reeks of hell as the Arab nomad militias, the “janjaweed” (devil on a horse), and the Arab Sudanese government systematically prosecute the destruction of Darfurian rebel groups and black African civilians, the “too black” African population of the Darfur. Brian Steidle, helplessly and hopelessly, watched the carnage and now must deal with the spirits that haunt him and the moral issues that plague his soul.

This informal, personal account serves a twofold purpose. Steidle sounds the sentinel’s alarm, appealing to all who will listen to open their eyes, see the senseless destruction of human life, and do something about it. This nightmarish memoir is also an attempt to bring some rest to his troubled spirit—atonement for his failure or inability to act to prevent the genocide—a tough challenge for a former Marine Corps captain.

Steidle’s narrative comes from MP3–recorded reports, journals, e-mails, photographs, and personal reflections of his one-year tour as an observer monitoring violations of a cease-fire agreement between the government of Sudan (GOS) and rebel groups. Gretchen Steidle Wallace is Brian’s co-author, sister, and confidant. She is the founder of Global Grassroots and has worked in developing countries to effect social change. Their purpose is awareness and a call to action.

This eyewitness portrayal of corruption and lawlessness in Sudan certainly reinforces the belief that sub-Saharan Africa is an orphaned region. This is an all too familiar story for Africa. It is the 4 million dead in the Congo. It is the 1994, 100-day tribal slaughter of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis by Hutu extremists all over again. This is Arab against African, Muslim against Muslim, 2.5 million displaced people, perhaps 500,000 perished from starvation, dehydration, or annihilation, and 3.5 million dependent upon food aid from various sources. This is men, women, and children raped, shot, butchered, or left to starve as their livestock and belongings are stolen and crops and homes are completely burned. This is men with clubs and elephant spears defending themselves, their families, and their homes and livelihood against government-backed and trained militias and government soldiers with helicopters, tanks, and Kalashnikovs. This is genocide, and the world once more turns a blind eye toward it.

The Devil Came on Horseback is certainly revealing on the Darfur tragedy, but there are a couple weaknesses. First, a more detailed regional map would have aided understanding the tyranny of distance and terrain in this area approximately one-third the size of Texas. Second, Steidle is handicapped by his zeal and first-person style. Although initially compelling, about a third of the way through the book, one realizes it is just more of the same surrealistic story—massacre, lies, incompetence, lack of will, and so forth on the part of most everyone in the mix except the author. While confident that neither pride nor desensitizing to the atrocities was the intent, the narrative style portrays Steidle as the only man in the region with a clue and with a passion to act.

Yet, his zeal to inform the world about the Darfurian genocide is also his greatest strength in this book as his passion floods the reader, stirring multiple emotions—outrage, frustration, compassion, repulsion, helplessness, and rage. The reader walks away from this account outraged by the atrocities, frustrated by the apparent bald-faced lies of an Arab government’s annihilation of its black African citizens, and in agreement with the principal that we must act. One cannot help but feel compassion for Mihad Hamid, the one-year-old girl shot by horse-riding devils. For those faint of heart, the few black-and-white pictures are repulsive scenes of the carnage. The reader can sense the helplessness as we watch the GOS forces and janjaweed horsemen killing and herding the internally displaced persons (IDP) into fewer and larger camps of 150,000, increasing the health and sustainment issues for the refugees while providing easier targets for the assassins. Rage wells up inside as the reader contemplates the rape of children and sadistic torture—crushing infants, smashing toddlers’ faces, and placing villagers on chopping blocks to be axed to death. The authors make the genocide case undeniable.

Beyond comprehending the crises in this region, there are lessons for the reader in the diplomatic, informational, economic, social, and military realms. Diplomatic efforts must have force behind them, and information must be communicated and acted upon; otherwise, both are just talk. The reader understands that if left unattended, these conflicts spread, in this case to Chad and the Central African Republic. If the genocide or conflict itself does not spread to neighboring countries or regions, the economic and social impacts do as IDPs relocate. In the military realm, this adversary uses slavery, rape, and civilian dead as weapons of its warfare—anathema to US military professionals. Readers gain greater appreciation of the asymmetrical nature of this conflict as well as the futility of peace monitoring or even peacekeeping missions.

Finally, there are the thorny questions. Should the United States get involved? Is it in the national interest? Does it really matter whether it is in the national interest? Is there a greater moral responsibility to act, a higher purpose? Truly, for the reader there is no conclusion, only soul searching and the haunting Darfurian faces awaiting the pale horse.

Steve Hagel

Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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