Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” For Brian Steidle, an ex-Marine hired to assist the African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan, witnessing the onslaught of genocide, but being restrained by the rules of engagement from doing anything to stop it, produced a dichotomy. How could he protest the genocide while serving in a position which precluded him from doing anything to stop it? Steidle’s solution: The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur.
When Steidle arrived in Sudan in January 2004, he was prepared for the harsh conditions under which he would be required to live, but he was not prepared for what was to come. After spending a few months in the relatively calm Nuba Mountains in southern Sudan, Steidle asked for and received a transfer to the Darfur region of western Sudan. As a member of the African Union peacekeeping force there, he witnessed the beginnings of the genocide that, despite his and others’ efforts to document and bring to the world’s attention, still rages on today.
Steidle is a sharp observer and kept copious notes of the atrocities he witnessed. He went to Darfur with the hope of helping in a desperate situation. However, his frustration with the ineffectual role of the AU Peacekeepers mounts as he sees villages flattened by fire, babies who have been shot in the back, women who have been gang-raped. He is appalled as the government of Sudan continues to deny any involvement – despite his personal observations of coordinated efforts between the Janjaweed (which means “devil on horseback” in Arabic) and government forces. And he is horrified that he is unable to do a thing about it.
It is not until many months after he has returned from Sudan – at the urging of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof – that Steidle begins to formulate his protest of the evil he witnessed. He decides that he has to reject the Omertà of the Marines (and the private contractor who he later works for – which he never identifies by name) and speak out. He and his sister return to Darfur to work on a documentary (also called The Devil Came on Horseback) and began to write this book. His prose is appropriately spare – the events he witnessed needed no hyperbole.
In writing this memoir, Brian Steidle does his best to protest against evil. He provides keen insight into the makings of genocide – how indifference by the world to the killing of black Africans perpetuates the violence, how limiting the scope of peacekeeping troops emboldens those who perpetuate evil. And the genocide continues. Recently, Human Rights Watch and other organizations have warned of ongoing atrocities. And so, still and again The Devil Came on Horseback is relevant for the history it provides.