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Darfur On Candid Camera

How Brian Steidle's Darfur footage opened the world's eyes


In 2003, Capt. Brian Steidle was just beginning a successful military career in the U.S. Marine Corps. But he saw a desk job looming, and wanted to do more. So he quit. An Internet posting about the need for cease-fire monitors in Sudan caught his eye, and he joined the Joint Military Commission there.

As Steidle heard more and more about the brutal Janjaweed Arab militia attacks on civilians in the Darfur region, he decided to become an unarmed observer with the African Union (AU) forces. With no gun, his "weapon" was his camera.

After six months watching as the AU had to stand by while the Janjaweed killed thousands, Steidle quit. He sent his photographs to Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. The resulting article, with Steidle's eyewitness proof of the atrocities, drew widespread attention to the genocide occurring in Darfur.

Steidle's photos, as well as a documentary about his efforts, will be part of a several-day event on Darfur, held in Ketchum. BW talked with Steidle by phone.

BW: How do you feel about the International Criminal Court (ICC) issuing summonses for two of the people they say bear responsibility for the Janjaweed attacks? I mean, the Sudanese government isn't going to give those people over to the court. The government doesn't recognize the court.

Steidle: Yes, they're not arrest warrants. They've just said, "Hey, come to court and defend yourself." Maybe the second time they'll issue arrest warrants or sealed indictments for some of the higher-up people. I think they're going to feel out the situation, because they haven't been in this place before, where they're issuing summonses and arrest warrants to people in a country that says it won't cooperate.

[But] it's one of the biggest steps. Hopefully these people will be turned over somehow to the ICC to be prosecuted so that the people in the country will feel safe. They'll never feel safe while these people are in power.

Where are the arms coming from?

The majority of arms come from China and Russia. China has recently helped Khartoum build two factories in their country to produce Kalashnikov rifles, so they don't have to import anymore.

Back in May 2006, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said there needed to be a U.N. force in Sudan because the African Union can't handle the situation. But Sudan won't let the U.N. in. Can the United Nations just go in without their permission?

They can. They need to have a unanimous decision by the Security Council. But the biggest step there is China. If we can convince China that it's in their best interest to have peace in Sudan, then I think that this can pass, or at least have China abstain from the vote.

There are some companies that are complicit in genocide--such as PetroChina and Sudatel. So I encourage people to divest their funds from those companies. And you know, just the other day, I found out that my parents were invested in this mutual fund, great mutual fund. I was getting ready to invest in it. I did a little research and they've got close to 2 percent invested in PetroChina, which is doing business in Sudan. They're buying 60-70 percent of Sudan's oil; 80-90 percent of those profits are going back to buy military equipment, which is being used in Darfur to kill these people.

Recently, the Idaho Legislature refused to print a bill that would have asked PERSI (Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho) to divest from companies doing business in Sudan. The executive director of PERSI said he didn't think the legislation was a good idea because the fund has only a very small percentage of its money in those companies.

I think it's a ridiculous argument. I think it's absolutely ridiculous. If one of your dollars is going to buy one bullet that's going to kill some civilian on the ground there, then you're guilty. You're guilty. That's the way I look at it. And I want to make sure that not a penny of my money goes to putting one grain of gunpowder in one bullet that's going to go kill some little girl.

People who have that argument obviously do not know enough about the situation; they don't know enough about what's happening in Darfur and what divestment can actually do. Siemens has already pulled out of Sudan. ABB, a Swiss energy company, has already pulled out. We are making a concrete difference on the ground, and it is one of the biggest things that actually ended apartheid in South Africa.

What's causing the delay in action?

The lobby companies obviously have influence, China and Russia on the Security Council definitely have an influence; the fact that the Sudanese government is providing little bits of intelligence on al-Qaeda to the United States government allows us to take a little backstep.

Would you still recommend a starry-eyed person work in the diplomatic corps or for a non-governmental organization (NGO)? Your frustration with their impotence is palpable in your film.

I absolutely would. The more young, energetic minds that can be involved in the NGOs will actually help pave the way for the future and actually will help change the situation on the ground in many of these countries. I mean, democracy is not a spectator sport. If you want to make a change, you've got to get involved. People who sit back and complain about our government and complain about certain things we're doing around the world, you know, why don't you write a letter to your senator or congressman? Why don't you get involved? Why don't you run for office?

How will you make a living and pursue this cause?

Very carefully. I mean, hopefully, our book will sell a little bit, and hopefully the documentary will bring in a little bit. Just little things like that keep me going.

Could you go back to Sudan?

They would give me a visa really quick, but they have specifically said that if I ever stepped foot in their country again, they would make sure I never returned home.

Are you safe in the United States?

There have been times when I've been confronted outside of an event by Sudanese officials. As far as threats, yeah, I watch my back. It's fairly safe in the U.S. I just watch my back. If you hear anything, let me know.

March 15, 7 p.m., NexStage Theare. Tickets are free, but required. Call 208-726-9491.