If you saw Brian Steidle on the street in Los Angeles, you wouldn't give him a second glance. Dressed the day we meet in the city's Venice district in regulation T-shirt, shades and cargos, he looks much like all the other gym-fit, cropped-haired young men loafing about somewhere between college and middle age. Which is precisely his strength.
Three years ago, fresh out of serving with the US marines in Kosovo and elsewhere, Steidle saw a job opening for a US monitor attached to the African Union peacekeeping mission in the Sudan. "I had no idea," he says. "I was looking for some adventure. My goal was to make money, to have a good time making it and to retire early."
Without knowing it, he was heading into a genocide in the making and towards becoming an unlikely, but highly effective, campaigner. The result is that alongside the big players such as Washington and Beijing, whose political calculations lie behind the new Security Council agreement to send an international force to Sudan's conflict zone, it is a small player in the person of Steidle - with his everyman demeanor and eyewitness evidence - who crucially set the stage by helping to make Sudan's government-sponsored slaughter a cause du jour in the US.
At first, Steidle's Sudan job was a breeze, running a team of three that monitored and reported on the relatively tranquil life of the people of the Nuba mountains. But after seven months, he went to Darfur, a then-obscure region in the west of the African nation, a region about to become infamous for some of the most brutal repression seen on the continent. The conflict, pitting Arab Muslims backed by the Sudanese government against black African Muslims, has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives since it broke out in early 2003.
"I was blown away by what I saw [in Darfur], because nobody knew about it. Not even us, in the same country, 300km away." What he saw is detailed in The Devil Came on Horseback, the book he went on to co-write with his sister Gretchen.
It opens with the heartbreaking account of Steidle's moment of awakening, when he comes upon a baby girl who has been shot in the back but is still alive, being dispassionately offered up to him by her aunt. Steidle does his job: he asks questions about the incident, takes photographs, goes on his way. As soon as his African Union helicopter takes off he begins to berate himself. Why did he not break the rules of his mission and take the girl with him? What would become of her? It is, he writes, the greatest regret of his life, and his recent book is an attempt to make amends.
Which raises the question of whether there is any point in using unarmed observers to monitor cease-fires. Undermanned and underfunded, the African Union's Darfur mission is a case in point, as the Security Council's belated establishment of a fully fledged mission seems to recognize.
Steidle writes that even when the African Union monitors knew the location and timing of impending attacks, no action was taken. Instead, bureaucratic processes prevailed: incidents were logged, reports filed, suppers eaten. He tells the story of how his warnings of an imminent attack by the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia on the village of Hamada were dismissed by one of his commanding officers with the words: "How is it you think you can predict what the Janjaweed will do?" A few days later 107 of the 450 villagers, he writes, were "tortured and murdered. Bodies were strewn along blood-soaked village paths. Infants had been crushed. "