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Darfur Documentary Debuts in Washington

The Darfur crisis is in the spotlight again at a documentary film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. The SilverDocs film festival is screening The Devil Came on Horseback, by award-winning filmmakers Annie Sundburg and Ricki Stern. The film shows the violence and the tragedy of Darfur, in western Sudan, through the eyes of a former American Marine named Brian Stidle. He witnessed the killings while working with African Union peacekeeping forces. Henok Fente reports from Washington.

The festival also brought other documentaries on African issues to the screen. There were premieres of a film on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, entitled God Sleeps In Rwanda, and one that tells stories of five Ethiopian women suffering from childbirth injuries, A Walk Too Beautiful.

The degree of interest in African documentaries was encouraging for filmmakers. All tickets were sold out days before the screenings.

Annie Sundberg is the co-director of The Devil Came on Horseback. She met Brian Stidle while she was working for the World Food Program in Kenya. A common friend told her about Stidle, who was driving all over Darfur taking pictures of the atrocities he witnessed.

“We begin the story with basically Brian getting out of the Marines and taking a job which is a peacekeeping monitoring assignment in the Nuba mountains,” she said, and went on to explain how the film was made: “He heard about atrocities in Darfur and he volunteered to become part of the African Union. And the film follows his work in Darfur and his decision to leave the mission.”

In retrospect, Stidle said the manner and level of the killings was like nothing he had seen before. “I was totally unprepared for what I would see.”

Stidle’s photographs were published by major news organizations, including the New York Times. But Stidle was not satisfied with the coverage given to the crisis in Darfur.

“He was frustrated about lack of action,” Sundberg said. “As a Marine he was used to taking assignments and getting the job done.”

“When we got involved in telling the story of Darfur, what was really driving me as filmmaker was the outrage that a government was allowed to target and attack its own citizens.” The Sudanese government denies the charge.

Lauren Landis, a senior representative on Sudan for the U.S. State Department, says the media has a role to play in creating awareness and facilitating political action. “I think they do a great job of getting ordinary Americans mobilized on really important issues like Darfur.”

The U.S. government is pushing for strict measures to end the violence in Darfur, pressuring the Sudanese government. Last month, President Bush called for economic sanctions unless Khartoum cooperates.

Landis says such documentaries facilitate political will and help raise funds to help millions of refugees. “We provide the majority of the humanitarian assistance, about $1.7 billion, as well as a large amount of assistance to AU peacekeepers in Darfur, about $300 million. We get the money to provide this assistance to Darfur from Congress. Activist groups get out there and tell the message, mobilize strong support in Congress where we get support to provide food, shelter or water for the people of Darfur.”

The Devil Came on Horseback will be shown to Congress at the end of this month. The films director, Annie Sundburg, hopes this will help mobilize a meaningful political support and save millions of lives in Darfur.