TOPICS > Politics

Images of Disaster

April 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: There are some 3,000 African Union troops in Sudan’s Darfur region today, observing a shaky cease-fire between the Sudanese government and local rebel groups.

But over the past 18 months, the U.N. says, the Sudanese government and its mostly Arab Janjaweed militias have driven some 2 million black Africans from their villages in Darfur. At least 300,000 of them have died from the attacks or the hard life of a refugee.

Former Marine Infantry Capt. Brian Steidle recently spent six months working under a State Department contract as a cease-fire monitor with the African Union force in Darfur; he joins us now to talk about what he saw and photographed. And, Capt. Steidle, welcome.

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, what were you doing there, what was your job as an American?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Well, we were there, as you mentioned, as part of a State Department contract to work with the African Union both as a monitor, to monitor the cease-fire, and also as an advisory role to the African Union to help them deal with any type of operational patrol reports, helicopter accidents, things like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Were you also talking to both sides, the Sudanese government and the rebel groups?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Absolutely. We had the members of the Sudanese government and both rebel groups were actually on our monitoring teams that we would go out and monitor the cease-fire.

MARGARET WARNER: So did you, you did witness a lot of the atrocities that we read about in these U.N. reports?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Yes. Yes, absolutely. We would go out on these patrols to monitor the cease-fire, report on the cease-fire violations and we would see villages of up to 20,000 people had been burned down. We would see scores of women and children and men who had been killed, evidence of torture, people had their ears cuts off, eyes plucked out.

MARGARET WARNER: These would just be bodies you’d see on the ground?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Absolutely, we’d go out to one of these villages and there would be people all over the place that had been killed.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, one of the unusual things about the photographs you have is you’ve got a lot of shots from the air, including showing villages or what looked like homesteads being burned. Describe that for us.

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Well, we were able to travel around in a helicopter, so we were able to take pictures from the helicopter of these burning villages soon after they began burning them.

A number of the shots I’ve taken are at the beginning of the burning process, and some are later, after the burning is completely, you know, finished. One of the photographs of the village of Labado, it took them more than a week to burn the village, a village of 20,000.

And you can see that the individual hut compounds, the small huts, the rings of the mud clay that they had, and then the fences that are around them, and you can see that it’s just absolutely devastated.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you also have some pictures, you would get in on the ground during what looks like looting and burning. Describe that.

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): We would try to get there on the ground when the fighting was occurring or when the people were still there doing the looting and the burning.

So that not just conducting interviews, we would actually see it with our own eyes and capture it on camera, as I’ve done. We would arrive many a times when you’d find the Sudanese government soldiers looting the shops. I have one picture, this picture here.

MARGARET WARNER: I think we have that up now.

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Right behind the pole in the center of the screen, you can see the Sudanese soldier who has just come out of the shop, this entire village, every store, every hut had most things taken out of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in the same village I think, then we have a shot of burning inside one of the stores. What’s that about?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): This one here, the government soldier in the far right side of the frame here had just lit this– this is a food store– on fire; a store, as in “storing the food.”

And after they push everybody out and take everything of value, then they burn the food store so when they come back they’ll have absolutely nothing.

MARGARET WARNER: Why haven’t we seen more photos like this of things while they’re occurring, and also these aerial photographs?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Well, the African Union is probably the only organization that has taken pictures such as this, and they their mandate does not allow them to share this information.

They keep it to themselves. They keep it classified or confidential, and they put them in reports and pass them up through their chains of command.

MARGARET WARNER: But you have chosen to release them.

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): I have. I think it’s more important for me to show the world, and that’s why I left the mission, is because I wanted to take these things– my stories, these photographs– and show the world what is actually happening there so that hopefully we can do something to stop it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the refugee camps themselves — people finally at least get out of the burning villages to a refugee camp. Does the Sudanese government leave them alone?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): No, absolutely not. There is one series of photographs that I took at the Algier IDP Camp on the outskirts of Niala, where the Sudanese government, their humanitarian organization called HACK estimated there are about 500 people in this camp.

Well, there are more like 5,000 people that were in the camp, and they had the aid organizations built a new camp of 500 people, and then they came in, in the middle of the night, drove everybody out, and then bulldozed it, the entire camp, up into one pile, and then burned it, displacing an additional 4,000, 5,000 people.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the African Union troops and commanders that you were working with, these military men, how did they feel about being put in this position?

They’re under this mandate; they’re allowed to observe the cease-fire going on, but they’re not allowed to intervene at all in the humanitarian atrocities that are taking place. How did they feel about that?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Well, you know, I can speak from the people I spoke to, and also the way I felt. We felt kind of helpless.

You know, standing at the edge of a village of 20,000 people when it’s burning and people are looting 50 meters in front of you, and you can’t do anything about it, I mean, you feel absolutely helpless. You have to have faith that the reports you write are getting somewhere, and hopefully something will be done from it. But we all wanted to do more when we were on the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: You, as a former Marine infantry captain, as you were watching this, did you say to yourself, “This would be so easy to stop”?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Yeah, I did, many times. I said, “Look, you know, 20 guys could stop this, you know? Let’s get in there. Let’s do this.” But they need an expanded mandate, and they need thousands more troops in order to cover the vast land of Darfur. It’s absolutely huge.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, I gather that the government would take some steps if an attack was about to take place, to see to it that maybe you didn’t even get there in time.

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Absolutely. One, they would always set off the cell phone systems before the helicopters would take off and before they would begin their bombings.

And then a number of times when we were going to go out in our helicopters, we would find that the fuel was shut off. There wasn’t any fuel left. So they would try to stop us.

MARGARET WARNER: When you say the government helicopters, in other words, the government helicopters would be sort of helping the Janjaweed militia on the ground?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Absolutely. The government and the Janjaweed attack together. Sometimes when the Janjaweed attacks a village, the government provides them with helicopter support.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. So what would the African Union — as a former U.S. Marine, do you think that the African Union force, if properly equipped or large enough, is competent, capable, battle-ready, would be able to handle this?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): I do, but I think they do need a lot of support, as you mentioned. I think they need support from the western world.

One, NATO could do a no-fly zone. We could provide them with logistic support, helicopters, vehicles on the ground, electronic warfare, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

And the more that the West assists them, then the fewer troops that are actually needed on the ground. And I think that we need to provide them with that support so they can do their mission.

MARGARET WARNER: Right now they have 3,000 troops are authorized, and I think the Sudanese government has said 6,000. But what size force are you talking about?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Well, if we leave it just the way it is, with very little western support, I think you’re going to need twenty-five to fifty thousand troops on the ground. But I think that if we give them a large amount of support, I think that we can probably bring that down to maybe ten or fifteen thousand to cover the entire area.

MARGARET WARNER: So what’s standing in the way?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): More support from the people. I encourage all the people to write their congressmen, write their senators, write the president. Let them know that this is of interest to you, and tell them that you want action done; you want this to stop.

MARGARET WARNER: So you think that this fight, that the fact that the Sudanese government doesn’t want to expand the mandate of this force, you think that if the West were really serious, they could turn the balance here in terms of getting a robust force in there?

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Absolutely. I think that we can, and the power lies with the people. You know, I call on all the people to write their governments and get it done.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Capt. Brian Steidle, thank you so much.

CAPT. BRIAN STEIDLE (RET.): Thank you.