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Spectator to genocide

Sudan | U.S. Marine captain starts out with African monitoring force in Darfur, and ends up mapping crimes in progress

Issue: "Schiavo’s fight for life," April 2, 2005

Brian Steidle's only weapons against mass killing were his pen, paper, and camera. The former Marine captain catalogs what they caught in Darfur, Sudan, with quick-fire urgency: toddlers with their faces smashed in, men castrated and left to bleed to death, charred bodies of villagers locked in huts later burned down. Charged only with monitoring ceasefire violations in the war-wracked region, he soon grew weary of playing spectator to genocide.

So after six months, the 28-year-old Mr. Steidle returned to the United States a month ago and launched his own offensive to stop the killing. In mid-March he criss-crossed Washington, meeting with lawmakers and Bush administration officials and sandwiching media appearances in between. His eyewitness accounts-bolstered by hundreds of photographs-provide some of the most damning evidence yet of the Sudanese government's murderous campaign against the Darfuris.

More images from Sudan

Darfur's conflict began two years ago, when the Islamic government launched an ethnic-cleansing campaign against blacks. It backed Arab militias called the Janjaweed, which cleared out villages, raped women, and plundered livestock. With rebel groups fighting back, the conflict has killed some 300,000 and displaced a further 2 million from their homes. And as far as Mr. Steidle could see, the attacks have not abated, despite international scoldings and a ceasefire signed a year ago.

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Mr. Steidle, one of three U.S. military observers on contract with the African Union, is part of a monitoring and protection force that can neither prevent nor fight an attack nor shield its intended victims. The African Union has almost 2,000 monitors in Darfur. Its only mandate is to protect civilian contractors and write reports.

The earnest-looking Mr. Steidle speaks determinedly about stopping the violence in Darfur. He first went to Sudan in January 2004, working on the North-South ceasefire with the U.S. military. Within months he went from team leader to senior operations officer, and soon found himself in Darfur. But even southern Sudan, emerging from a 20-year civil war, equipped him little for the almost daily atrocities he saw in Darfur.

Relegated to scribe, Mr. Steidle mapped the general pattern of attacks. First the government shut down cell-phone systems so villagers could not warn each other of a coming attack. Government-owned Antonov aircraft then flew over a village doing reconnaissance. Helicopter gunships soon followed, firing purposefully on terrified and scattering Darfuris. That the aim was to kill and wound civilians was evident, Mr. Steidle said, in their use of anti-personnel rockets. Each rocket contained 500 flashettes, small nails with stabilizing fins to make sure their point punctured the target first. He saw one child hit by the devices. His wounds, Mr. Steidle said, looked like "someone would have shredded your back with a cheese grater."

After the aerial strafing, militiamen known as Janjaweed invaded the villages, killing as many inhabitants as they could and dispersing the rest. To delay any return, the militiamen usually set fire to food stores and tampered with water wells. That way, villagers could never be sure if their desert lifeline had been poisoned. Then the militiamen looted what was left behind, piling mattresses, furniture, bicycles-often the villagers' only possessions-onto waiting government trucks. "One of the most amazing things about this is if you talk to the Janjaweed, they accept that this is payment," Mr. Steidle told a gathering at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on March 18.

The Janjaweed then burned villages to the ground. Mr. Steidle saw no difference between the government's actions and theirs: One supported the other. "We looked at them as if they were two different units of the army," he said. "The regular army, with special forces [working] at the same time." The Janjaweed also divided into the "Mujahideen battalion," who were paid and always wore uniforms, and a mercenary-like group that received payment more often via looting.

Even the African Union monitors Mr. Steidle traveled with in South Darfur were not always safe. One of their well-marked, white helicopters was shot at in December while monitors were on their way to investigate new violence. The Sudanese forces also devised ways to thwart what little authority the monitors had. The government was not allowed to make troop movements without first notifying the African Union and obtaining its permission. Once the division commander in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, complied in part and wrote a letter saying that he was going to reestablish his troop positions.

"He was basically giving us notification that he was going to attack a village," Mr. Steidle said. "And that's exactly what he did. The next day they attacked a village." Often when the African Union tried to investigate such attacks, fuel for their helicopters suddenly became unavailable. The government fuel company offered bland excuses: "We are out of fuel" or "Our fuel pumps are broken." Sudanese helicopters, however, were never deprived enough to stop their aerial attacks. Sudanese troops also skirted around their movement restrictions by shuttling around Darfur "escorting" fuel convoys, supposedly to ensure their safe passage.

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