Captain Brian Steidle: 'I walked through a field filled with human bones'

Captain Brian Steidle was a ceasefire monitor in Darfur with the African Union, where he watched helplessly as a genocide unfolded. The former US Marine is the first observer to go public on the atrocities in the region

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In the six months I spent in Darfur as a "ceasefire observer", I saw entire villages burned down with Sudanese locked inside their huts.

In the six months I spent in Darfur as a "ceasefire observer", I saw entire villages burned down with Sudanese locked inside their huts.

I saw villagers with their eyes or ears plucked out, or men who had bled to death after being castrated. I interviewed women who had been gang-raped while out collecting firewood.

I saw evidence of summary executions. I walked through a field where it was impossible to move without stepping on human bones.

The killings in Darfur, described by the UN last year as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, have been going on for two years now. While the big powers have been debating whether the war crimes being perpetrated in Sudan's western region are genocide, and how to punish them, the massacres of the mainly black African population by the Arab militias have continued unabated.

From the day of my arrival in September, to my departure last month, there was really no change in the situation on the ground. It didn't get better and it didn't get worse, although the violence did seem to peak in December and January. In fact, we jokingly said we couldn't find a ceasefire, and that if someone could tell us where it was we would monitor it.

On the first day I was on the ground there had been an attack, and on the last day before I left, there had been an attack. It is a one-sided conflict: according to what our teams saw, between 90 and 95 per cent of the attacks are by the government and their allied Arab militias who have driven more than a million people from their homes.

The majority are attacks on civilian targets and villagers. There a few by the rebels, but the majority of those are on police positions for the purpose of gaining weapons and ammunition.

One of the worst attacks witnessed by my team of eight observers was on the village of Labado in southern Darfur in December. Government helicopter gunships swooped on the village of 20,000 people and burned it to the ground. Three thousand soldiers attacked with the Arab Janjaweed militia. We reached the village while the attack was under way, after being contacted by a rebel group.

A Sudanese general told us that their mission was to clear the road from where we were to Khartoum - several hundred kilometres away. They said if they met resistance along the way they were going to attack.

This is what happens when they meet resistance - we are standing on the edge of a village of 20,000 people being burned. We actually saw a group of uniformed men in a Toyota Land Cruiser, who according to the general were just going to get water. But they jumped out of their vehicle further along the road, looted a hut, and burned it. As observers, the only thing we could do was to take our pictures and write up our report.

During my time there, we were getting up to five reports of ceasefire violations every day. We did more than 200 investigations, and wrote 80 reports which were very definitive in the fact that they were a government violation of the ceasefire. But we don't know for sure that they all got through to the people in donor countries they were destined for.

The African Union (AU) has been taking the lead in dealing with the unrest in Darfur, and now has about 3,000 soldiers in the region. The government in Khartoum has just approved beefing up the number to 6,000.

But the problem is that the AU mandate provides for the African soldiers to protect the ceasefire monitors, not the civilian population. It seems unlikely that the Sudanese government, which has agreed to the deployment of the "ceasefire monitors", would willingly go along with the deployment of an outside force sent to keep the peace on its sovereign territory.

So AU sector commanders have devised ingenious ways to deter the marauding Arab forces. They realised that if you deploy the monitoring team to a village for a week, then you can deploy troops to protect the monitors, and in turn protect civilians, even though the mandate doesn't provide for that explicitly.

A week after the Labado attack, the AU put 70 soldiers into the village, and a 10-man monitoring team. The small troop presence not only convinced the government to withdraw, but 3,000 people then returned to the embers of their village to begin to rebuild. As of two weeks ago, I was told that 10,000 people have now returned.

A neighbouring village called Muhajeryia, twice the size of Labado, was one of the last rebel strongholds in the south. The rebels told us that if attacked they would fight to the death: we knew there would be hundreds or thousands of casualties.

We had to do something. We put 35 troops into the village of 40,000 - not to protect the village, but protecting a civilian contracting team that was building a more permanent camp. Those 35 soldiers were enough to stop the government from advancing.

That's an example of deterrence that can be repeated all over. But given that Darfur is the size of France, and that you would need a military unit in every single village, my best estimate is that between 25,000 and 50,000 troops are needed.

Let's be clear: Western troops should stay out of Darfur. We are talking about the African Union. But now the numbers of troops are starting to go up, they need more help in terms of equipment from donor countries, not money. And there is also the issue of the mandate, so that the civilians can be properly protected.

The UK has shown the best way of supporting the mission. In January, while I was there, they gave the African Union 147 vehicles. But more will be needed.

I decided to go public because the African Union considers that everything they do is confidential or classified - obviously they have to be careful because they have to keep the Khartoum government on board.

But I think that is hurting them because they cannot get the world behind them to support them if they don't share the information on what's happening.

As it is, the government is able to put its point of view in the AU reports, usually to say they don't agree with them or that we don't have evidence. The AU teams of about eight people are headed by an African Union member, with an AU deputy. They also include representatives of the Sudanese government and of the rebel groups, as well as a Chadian mediator and a representative of the European Union or US. I was the US person on my team. But the observer mission is still hopelessly understaffed, given that the killings are still going on despite the ceasefire.

There's really no way to tell how many people have died. You may get an account in a village of 100 or so, but then 120 others will have gone missing, and there's no way of knowing whether they have fled to the bush.

But in any case the old figure of 70,000 dead was absolutely ridiculous, because it was based on deaths from disease and starvation, and didn't take into account the killings.

The figure of up to 400,000 mentioned by the British Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week is probably a good estimate, if you take into account that one year on, at least 10,000 people are dying each month from humanitarian reasons, and you've got to add in the killing because of the actual fighting. Consider the sort of atrocities I saw. In December, we were taken to a place two or three kilometres outside the village of Adwa where there was a bone field, 50 metres by 50 metres, where you could not walk around without stepping on human bones. We had no idea how many people had been killed there. The animals had picked on them for weeks and now there were just bones everywhere, everywhere you go.

When we went out on our patrols, we would see villages burned completely to the ground, and scores of people who'd been killed.

We'd conduct interviews with women who'd been raped, or gang raped when they went out to collect firewood. We'd see evidence of torture, when we found these bodies. Often when they attack a village, the people run into the bush, and they still chase them down to kill them. That's when you see that when they find a male that had run away they would castrate them, and sometimes let them bleed to death. You can tell there have been summary executions, because you find people that have been shot in the back of the head.

And when they do the burning, if there are a lot of people who hide in their huts, they just lock the doors and burn them. In Um Ziefa, a village of about 1,500, we arrived just as the Janjaweed militia had begun burning the huts after looting everything. It took them two to three days to finish the job.

That's what gets me about these discussions at the UN on whether to refer the perpetrators of these war crimes to the International Criminal Court. This debate should not even be happening. If you see an old lady being attacked on the street, you don't ask yourself if it's a mugging or a murder, you intervene to stop it. That's what I think should be done in Darfur. Everyone should be asking how can we stop the killings now.

Having spent six months in Darfur, seeing what I saw day after day, with only four or five days off, it is impossible not to have changed. We were supposed to have Fridays off - the Muslim day of prayer - but that proved impossible because of the situation on the ground.

I've not had time yet to sit down and figure out how my Darfur experience has changed me, but it definitely has. My plan now, as well as campaigning for Darfur, is to join my sister who runs an organisation working on women's issues at the grassroots level.

The women and children are the ones who take the brunt in a conflict like this. Hopefully we'll be able to visit some of the camps for displaced people in Chad and Kenya. I can never go back to Sudan.

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