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Annapolis man documents atrocities in Sudan's Darfur By E.B. FURGURSON III, The Capital

6/21/2005 10:30 pm

By E.B. FURGURSON III, The Capital

ANNAPOLIS, June 20, 2005 -- Brian Steidle doesn't know what happened to Mihad Hamid. When he photographed the 1-year-old girl last year in a refugee camp in the western Sudan region of Darfur, she was suffering from a serious gunshot wound.
Mihad was the first of hundreds of victims the former Marine captain photographed as part of a State Department contract to monitor the conflict between African and Arab Muslims.

For six months he wrote reports and took photographs recording what he saw every day. The reports seemed to go nowhere. The world seemingly didn't wake up to the murder, rape, torture of thousands of men, women and children at the hands of government-backed militias.

Nor did they spark help for the appalling conditions survivors are living under in refugee camps on both sides of the Sudan-Chad border.

But with his photographs, the Annapolis resident has helped to bring worldwide attention to the atrocities. He has told his story to Congress, international courts and anyone else who will listen.

Mihad was the first person he took a picture of. She had been shot in the back as her fam-ily fled an attack by Sudanese Arab militia and helicopter gunships in October. The bullet punctured her lung. She was wheezing as her mother handed the child to Mr. Steidle because she thought all foreigners were doctors. She likely died in the refugee camps along the border with Chad.

That encounter haunts him and drives his effort to stir the world into action.

After Mihad and the countless other atrocities he saw in the following months, Mr. Steidle decided to break the constraints of his diplomatic, neutral position with the African Union and go public.

"My conscience would no longer allow me to stand by without taking further action," he said in an interview. "I thought I could be more effective by bringing the story of what I witnessed to the world."

In addition to Congress, Mr. Steidle has testified for Britain's House of Commons, and appeared on media outlets throughout the world. He's made his information available to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, which announced on June 6 it would open formal war crimes investigations into the Darfur debacle. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has put some of his photographs on its Web site.

Now he is going back.

This month Mr. Steidle, who has been living on a sailboat in the Annapolis area since February, is returning to the camps in Chad - this time with an HBO film crew to document the horrific stories the displaced thousands have to tell.

Ethnic cleansing

The tragedy in Darfur, a region about the size of Texas, has deep roots. The Arab militias, also called the Janjaweed, are historically a nomadic tribe who have been fighting non-Arab farmers for years. The current, more intense, conflict began in 2003 when two rebel groups from the non-Arab side attacked government installations. The Sudanese government responded with air assaults supported by the Janjaweed.

That response quickly turned into scorched-earth ethnic cleansing witnessed by Mr. Steidle and other members of the team of international observers under the auspices of the African Union, an organization founded in 2002 to attract foreign investment and spread democracy.

"We came upon villages that had been burned, people had been locked in their huts and burned alive," he said. "Others had their ears and noses cut off, their eyes popped out. We found men who had been castrated and left to bleed to death. We saw this every day."

This has happened to hundreds if not thousands of villages. The death toll has varied from 80,000 to 300,000. Mr. Steidle thinks it is closer to the higher number. A recent British Parliament report concurs.

The Sudanese government denies its troops have been involved in any ethnic cleansing. But Mr. Steidle's pictures of a Sudanese soldier standing next to a food store he has just torched, a shot of a helicopter gunship strafing a village, dead bodies and aerial pictures of torched villages, prove otherwise. That is why some say Mr. Steidle's efforts have helped the cause.

"He has been powerful for three reasons," said Jerry Fowler, staff director of the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "First, he is an incredibly credible witness, in his presentation, his manner and his background. Second was his unique access as part of a monitoring force. And third, he documented what he saw through his photographs."

He said Mr. Steidle helped get wider coverage for the plight of those being killed and displaced. "There has been a lot of coverage of this story. But unfortunately it has still not broken through the white noise we live with. It is not getting sustained coverage like the Michael Jackson trial."

Rep. Frank Wolfe, R-Va., met with Mr. Steidle and got him a meeting in March with Secretary of State CondoleezzaRice.

In that brief meeting and subsequent hours with her staff he made the same plea he did before Congress. "I believe this conflict can be resolved through international support for the African Union ... We cannot fail the men women and Chirdren of Darfur. We must stop the ongoing genocide," he said.

He pushed a three pronged AU effort: Expanded powers to protect civilians and secure routes for humanitarian aide, advanced logistic and communication support and a sharp increase in the number of international troops on the ground.

His story was entered into the Congressional Record in March in support of bills addressing the Darfur debacle. In April the Senate passed the Darfur Accountablity Act of 2005. A similar bill is in committee in the House.

Mr. Wolfe credited Mr. Steidle's effort. "How can you remain silent when you watch genocide take place?"

Family inspiration

The decision to take a stand comes from family roots too.

When he was in Darfur in the spring of 2004, he regularly talked to his sister, former Annapolis resident Gretchen Wallace, by satellite phone.

"He shared with us a lot of the things he was experiencing," she said. "He talked about witnessing these things, and seeing the lack of coverage was so frustrating for him. How can this be happening on such a large scale and no one knew about it?"

The AU reports seemed to be secreted somewhere; the word was not getting out. It seemed strange because Mr. Steidle had previously served as an observer in the Nuba mountain region overseeing a treaty from an older Sudanese conflict. Information gathered there made it to the press.

"It seemed everything was in the open, more transparent." Ms. Wallace said. "But in Darfur it was closed."

His father, who served as an A-6 pilot in Vietnam, then head of the Joint Strike Fighter program before becoming a NASA official, thinks part of his son's inspiration to serve came from an awareness of other cultures from living in different places around the world.

"Being aware of politics world wide came from that background ... being uprooted and moved around had its positive effect in the long-term," said retired Adm. Craig Steidle, who lives in Virginia.

He is not the only sibling with that world view. He is taking his sister to Chad where, aside from the HBO documentary, they will work on a project for Global Grassroots, a non-profit founded by Ms Wallace.

Global Grassroots aims to help women in stricken areas like Darfur by finding small-scale solutions developed by the people themselves that can be used elsewhere.

Of course Mr. Steidle is taking a chance returning to the area. "The ICC warned me it's not a good idea."

"(They) can't be happy with him," Mr. Fowler said. Some think, considering the tactics used by the government of Sudan in Darfur so far, it is dangerous for him. "If it is willing to go the extremes of violence to protect itself, I think that suggests he needs to be very cautious about returning to the region."

But Mihan and the others changed this Marine's life.

"I got into this for selfish reasons," he said. "I got out of the Marine Corps and heard about this job. It was adventure and it paid real well."

But when he hit Darfur, it was a different story. "I did not have a clue. Now I have to do it for them, not for myself . . . I have to do what's right."

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