Brian Steidle understands the anatomy of a genocide. As one of three American State Department contractors on the African Union's (AU) monitoring team in Sudan, the 28-year-old former Marine captain witnessed the systematic destruction of villages in south Darfur in late 2004. He's now working with Gretchen Steidle Wallace (his sister), who runs a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Global Grassroots Network to raise awareness about the government of Sudan's complicity in the Darfur genocide. On March 15, between meetings with Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and an appearance on Wolf Blitzer Reports, Captain Steidle sat down with American Prospect writing fellow Mark Leon Goldberg at a coffee shop in Arlington, Virginia.
Can you describe what happens when a village is attacked? Are there common elements of a modus operandi?
The majority of the time, a fighter plane comes in and circles around a village to conduct reconnaissance. Then the helicopter gunships move in, hovering above the village and shooting at anything that moves. Anybody who tries to get away is attacked by the gunship. After that, the Janjaweed [the Arab militia in Sudan] and government forces move in together. Sometimes they're both in trucks; other times, they arrive with a combination of horses, camels, and motor vehicles. Some of the time, they do joint burnings. I've seen the remains of people who were locked inside their homes as it was burned to the ground. The government of Sudan will often leave the village to the Janjaweed as part of their payment; they get to keep all the loot they steal from the village.
Is this what happened in the village of Labado in December 2004?
My team got a call informing us that the village of Labado, population of about 20,000 people, was under attack. When we arrived, we saw a government of Sudan helicopter gunship going back and forth over the village, firing on it. On the ground, the village was burning; it was under attack by a combination of government forces and about 2,000 Janjaweed militia.
Where were you?
I was in a helicopter.
That must have been frustrating.
It was very frustrating. We were also trying to figure out if we were going to make it back, because they knew we were there. I mean, I was hanging out the side [of the helicopter] taking photographs. I asked our pilot -- all our pilots were Russian -- I asked him, “What will you do if the gunship comes up behind you?” He said, “Pray.” That's not really what I wanted to hear.
And what happened after the attack?
The village of about 20,000 had been destroyed, its people either killed or, for the majority, displaced to the nearby village of Muhajeryia. I talked to the Sudanese brigadier general on the ground. He told me his mission was to clear the road from Labado all the way to Khartoum, which is about 100 kilometers away. If he encountered any resistance he was going to fight back and take the villages out. Those were his orders, he told me, and they came directly from Khartoum.
A brigadier general from the government of Sudan told you that he had orders from Khartoum to clear the road? Did this bypass his official military chain of command, perhaps indicating a parallel command structure that ordered him to “clear the road?”
This was part of an informal chain of command that answered directly to Khartoum. The brigadier general was brought from an area of the south where many acts of genocide had already occurred. When he told me his order was to clear the road, I said I would go to his superior, the 16th Division commander who was stationed in Nyala. He said he didn't get his orders from the division commander; rather, the order to clear the road came directly from Khartoum.
He had no problem telling you this?
No remorse whatsoever. He told me, “This is my mission. I am a military man. I'm going to follow my orders and continue on this attack.” I knew that this meant an attack on Muhajeryia, the next village down and a rebel stronghold of about 45,000 people (including those who fled Labado). It was only one of three areas that the rebels still held in south Darfur. They had massed several thousand troops there. The rebels were not going to pull back anymore. We knew it was going to be a very ugly fight. With an attack on Muhajeryia imminent, we had to do something. So, under the auspices protecting a civilian contracting group in Muhajeryia, we put 35 AU troops in the village.
So really, you were just fishing for an excuse to deploy the AU troops to the village?
Exactly. The AU troops don't have a specific mandate to defend civilians or stop a village from attack. But they can be deployed to protect civilian contractors, NGOs, or our 10-man monitoring team. We were hoping that the mere presence of the 35 troops would deter an attack -- and it worked. Neither the Janjaweed nor the Sudanese government advanced. Rather, after about a week, the government forces simply consolidated their position in Labado. Then, about a week after that, we decided to put 70 soldiers from the AU force in Labado itself -- ostensibly to protect my 10-man monitoring team there.
Within two weeks, about 3,000 people returned to the village to rebuild, and we were able to negotiate a withdrawal of the government troops from Labado. Now, the State Department tells me that 10,000 villagers have returned.
It's stunning that with fewer than 100 lightly armed African Union troops you were able to both repel an attack and negotiate a withdrawal.
They were not going to attack our position because they knew that the eyes of the world are on the African Union troops. They could have easily walked over the AU and killed everybody, but they didn't because they knew we were watching. If you read on the front page of The Washington Post that 70 AU troops were killed by the government of Sudan, it will cause a big ruckus. They knew that. So they didn't attack.
Do you think that this kind of successful strategy is a formula that can be repeated throughout Darfur to prevent further attacks on civilians?
This success story of the African Union can be replicated throughout Darfur, but only if they see their numbers increase. Right now there are fewer than 4,000 troops there. To repeat this kind of success all over Darfur, they need 25,000 to 50,000 troops.
For the last few weeks, we've been waiting for a [United Nations] Security Council resolution on Darfur, but there seem to be a few sticking points holding this up. On the American side, we are reluctant to refer the war crimes to the International Criminal Court [ICC], as the [European Union] would like. On the Chinese, Russian, and, to a lesser extent, French side, they seem reluctant to go along with as tough a sanctions regime as the [United States] would like.
My hope is that those issues can be put aside. Whether the UN wants to call it a genocide or not, or whether the crimes will be referred to the ICC or another tribunal can be put aside. The most important thing in my eyes is that what's going on is wrong, and it needs to stop. When it stops, and when people are safe and secure, then let's talk about where these people are going to be tried and talk about whether or not its genocide. Most people in Washington agree with that.
In the short term then, what can help?
There are a few things that would do some immediate good. First, we need to enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur. Once Khartoum gets a couple of its gunships shot down, I don't think they will fly again. Those gunships are pretty valuable to them. Second, we need to impose weapons sanctions against Sudan; targeted economic sanctions are more politically tricky to impose, but weapons sanctions are definitely necessary. Most importantly, we need to increase our support for the African Union mission in Darfur on all levels. We need to multiply the existing AU mission there manifold and support a more robust force of 25,000 to 50,000. Further, the international community needs to expand their mandate to allow them to protect civilians and open up roads between the villages for humanitarian access. That's not in their mandate right now.
Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.