Movie of the Week: The Devil Came on Horseback (2007)

In 2003, the Sudanese government responded to rebel uprisings in western Sudan by employing Northern Sudanse/Arab militias to wage a campaign of rape, burning, displace and extermination against the farming communities of western Sudan, or Darfur. Estimates vary, but it is thought that more than 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict, either due to violence or deplorable health conditions within refugee camps, and that tens of thousands of women have been systematically raped, often in the presence of their children or close relatives. To this day, the United States and the United Nations have done next to nothing.

In 2004, retired Marine captain Brian Steidle took a contract to act as an unarmed observer of a brokered ceasefire between North and South Sudan. Provided with only a camera and basic logistic support he became witness to some of the most horrific atrocities the world has ever known.

For 7 months, Steidle photographed and documented the remains of burned villages, decaying bodies of men, women, children and infants. He interviewed women in the refugee camps along the Chadian border as they related stories of systematic and state sponsored rapes. Steidle was even able to interview the perpetrators of these atrocities, as they matter of factedly described their jobs, and role of the Sudanese government in providing compensation and training.

Steidle returned to the United States to spread the word about what was occurring in Darfur, meeting with broad public support, but resulting in little substantive official action. I remember the half-hearted handwaving of the Bush administration, who took what seemed like a lifetime to argue about the meaning of the word “genocide,” and the failure to provide even the most basic of military interventions to prevent it. Iraq and state sponsored torture during the Bush admin were travesties of US policy with implications that will last forever. What happened in Darfur and the US governments complicity by non-action are entirely unforgivable. If there is ever a cause to try the members of the Bush admin for war crimes, it is their role as indifferent accomplices in one of the worst genocides in human history.

If anything, the Devil Came on Horseback should serve to remind us of the stratified nature of human worth. A single American soldier is like a bar of gold, while one million propertyless women in the middle of an African desert are worth no more than the sand they live on. Had it been photographs of white, English speaking people being killed, raped and tortured, the American public would have screamed in outrage. However, the refusal of the US to recognize the humanity of the Darfurians only serves to propagate a cycle of racist and ethnic marginalization that allows genocide to occur.

Patterns of mortality rates in Darfur conflict The Lancet, Volume 375, Issue 9711, 23 January 2010-29 January 2010, Pages 294-300, Olivier Degomme, Debarati Guha-Sapir

Hagan, J., Brooks, R. and Haugh, T. (2010), Reasonable Grounds Evidence Involving Sexual Violence in Darfur. Law & Social Inquiry, 35: 881–917. doi: 10.1111/j.1747-4469.2010.01208.x

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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