Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Devil Came on Horseback

I get the feeling when I hear, see or read about African conflicts that I am hearing about Africans killing Africans for reasons no-one can understand or stop. It is too easy for this view to morph into the idea that Africans are naturally violent and can't get along with each other (may be Americans had the same view of Europeans in 1914-8 and 1939-41 etc). But these pernicious ideas really part of the group of ideas that serve to make us feel superior, blameless and without need to act. The ignorance we have about African conflicts (ditto conflicts in the former USSR) is, in part, due to our general ignorance of those areas of the globe -- how many of us given a map of Africa (or the former USSR) with borders but without names could put the right names to the countries? (Yet we get upset when people don't know about NZ). Additionally the reporting in our media tends to make us more confused. Months can go by between reports. A report on an African conflict is likely to be brief, with little or no background information to give context, some photos or video of victims or men on a ute waving guns, it will be couched in politically correct terms and accompanied by contradictory statements by various parties.

The media isn't entirely to blame. The government of Sudan is keen to keep its war in Darfur (half of the left hand side of Sudan) out of the news. It knows that other governments have little interest in this dry patch of dirt, twice the size and twice the population of New Zealand. Chad and the Central African Republic neighbour Darfur but are far too weak to act and other governments will only act if prodded to by their publics. Hence the strategy to keep out the media, deny genocide, ethnic cleansing and deny funding and fighting alongside their coalition partner the Janjaweed. An ignorant world public (or media) can't prod their respective governments.

So much for the political/sociological rant and onto the film. This documentary is the story of retired US Marine Captain Brian Steidle who applied for a job as team leader in the African Union peace monitoring force in Southern Sudan just east of Darfur. In response to reports of violence the team moves west into Darfur, taking photos, interviewing and writing reports (most of which go no further than A.U. mission H.Q.). They watch Sudanese helicopter gunships leave their bases fully armed and return empty. They catalog weapons (including artillery) "going missing" from Sudanese military base. They photograph helicopter gunships attacking villages, Sudanese soldiers and Janjaweed attacking together. They talk to Janjaweed leaders who candidly describe their relationship with the Sudanese military. The team gets to know the conflict so well that they can predict where attacks will take place -- they are not listened to. Brian is sure that once the U.S. public knows the U.S. military will be on their way. After 6 months in Darfur he is so frustrated he doesn't renew his contract, going home with his copies of his photos and reports.

Back home he realises that reports written by the A.U. monitoring teams have not become public knowledge and he goes to the N.Y. Times. Briefly he becomes a media celebrity and the U.S. Congress recognised that genocide is happening in Darfur. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice politely listens to him and hands him back his photos. Brian learns his lesson in realpolitik, and becomes an activist. He is a committed, driven, brave and frustrated man and the villagers of Darfur need as many of his sort as possible.

Interestingly he went to Rwanda to learn about their genocide, how it was stopped and how the country recovered. But I suspect what he learned won't help, because the Rwandan genocide was stopped by the Tutsi themselves, not by UN, US or AU.

Ian's rating: 5/5
Anne's rating: 4/5

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