Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ex-marine brings attention to world crisis

Four-day focus on Darfur is call to action


A Darfur girl with her baby brother.

By DANA DUGAN

and SABINA DANA PLASSE

Express Staff Writers

The idea that genocide still exists in today's world is an unfathomable thought. Yet, in Darfur, Sudan, genocide continues to be a violent and tragic situation, which needs an urgent response.

On a call to action, the Wood River Jewish Community and the Sun Valley Center for the Arts have brought together a four-part exhibition for six days to educate and solicit the Wood River Valley community in aiding and helping to end this atrocity.

In 2003, war broke out between the Sudanese government and Darfuri rebels. The Sudanese government, working with Arab militias known as Janjaweed (or devil on horseback), began sponsoring wholesale ethnic cleansing of non-Arab Darfurians, almost all of whom had no direct affiliation with the rebel groups. Since 2003, approximately 400,000 civilians have died. Another 2.5 million, a third of Darfur's population, have been driven from their homes.

"Members of the Wood River Jewish Community asked The Center to sponsor a lecturer. They wanted to bring Brian Steidle to Sun Valley," said Kristine Poole, artistic director for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum. "The Center felt it was a good fit in terms of their humanities lectures. Upon closer look, The Center found that "Darfur/Darfur," the exhibition that was shown in New York City and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, was really important, and we needed to make this exhibit accessible, visible and as real as possible."

Steidle, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain who received his commission in 1999, left the military in 2003. He said he has always been interested in Africa, when he went to Sudan in September 2004. As one of three U.S. military observers for the African Union, armed only with a pen, pad and camera, he was to report on violations of a cease-fire that had been declared the previous April.

"When I was in the Marine Corps I did some training with the Moroccan infantry," he said. "I always wanted to go to Africa. It was a great opportunity, and I'd make a good living. That's why I went, the money and the excitement of the job."

Steidle, now 30 years old, admits he, like most Americans, knew very little about Sudan. He was seven months in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, eventually working his way up a desk jockey job as the senior operations officer.

"I heard about Darfur, and I wanted to get back in the field. There were rumors but even inside Sudan it takes a long time to hear things. I didn't really know the extent of what was going on until I got there.

"I had gone hoping we could make a difference monitoring the cease-fire but there was no cease-fire at all. Our reports weren't getting to the right people. I was more and more frustrated with my inability to get things done. So, I quit and came home. I wanted to forget what was happening and just watch the coverage on CNN, but there was no one covering it. No one knew what was going on. No one had shared the information. It's become a mission of mine to make people aware."

Steidle has since spoken at over 100 public awareness events in communities and at universities across the country, including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. The Save Darfur Coalition sponsored a special speaking tour in Spring 2006, which took Steidle 22,000 miles across the country for over 50 events. Among other high level politicians, he met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, and Ambassador to the UN on War Crimes Pierre-Richard Prosper.

"We're on the right track," he said. "We're concentrating on divestment campaigns but there's still no definitive action."

Carefully targeted divestment is tailored to include only the most flagrantly involved companies in Sudan. The targeted approach excludes any company that benefits those outside of government circles, including medicine, education, general consumer goods and agriculture. Among companies targeted for divestment is China's largest producer of fuel, whose main foreign investor is Berkshire Hathaway. The company, PetroChina, buys 60 to 70 percent of Sudan's oil.

"Eighty to 90 percent of this money is used for military in Sudan, so people are making money off genocide," Steidle said. "Six states and many universities have already divested. (Officials with Idaho's state retirement fund have initiated a campaign). We've already proved it works by the ending of apartheid in Africa."

According to the Sudan Divestment Taskforce, Swiss power giant ABB suspended all non-humanitarian operations in the country, a decision in which divestment played a partial role. Shortly thereafter, one of Germany's largest companies, Siemens, pledged to pull out of Sudan, also citing the pressure created by divestment as a factor.

"This country has tens of billions invested. A way to find out about your own investments, as my family and I have done is go to sudandivesment.org. It's great screening tool. You can enter your mutual fund. It will flag any thing that is implicit. I don't feel right supporting the raping of women and killing babies. I'd rather make money somewhere else. It's right for Americans to do. You're basically an arms dealer."

Steidle hopes that some type of leadership from the U.S. and the west to get a peace treaty will be forthcoming.

"We'd like to see something that's fair for all parties. Then implementation of protective force to protect civilians, and then prosecution of the people explicit in genocide. The three 'Ps'—peace, protection and prosecution. That's really the best way. The UN is not going to jump in there until there's a peace treaty. What happened in the Balkans is the closest to this situation that's ever been done. It was a great example that showed how the U.S. could take a leadership position."

What Steidle does not advocate, however, is the U.S. becoming "involved in another Iraq or another Somalia," with U.S. soldiers taking the brunt of the conflict on the ground.

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Curated by Leslie Thomas, "Darfur/Darfur" is three continuous loops of images such as villages burning and rotting skeletons, to name only a few of the inhuman and unspeakable images Steidle photographed. "People get into things in many ways and visual support lends a hand in understanding," Poole said. "There is so much tragedy in the world and unless it has a face, we are sometimes not compelled to deal with it."

"It's exciting for us to squeeze (the exhibit) in, and make it opportunity for people to make it real. People take time to think about the world in a different way," Poole said. "We need to ask questions, and here in Sun Valley we are removed. As Americans, we don't have the experience of what it is like to be kicked out of our homes, land and country."

In addition to the opening of the exhibit at The Center, Wednesday, March 14, Los Angeles actress Adina Porter will conduct two readings Thursday, March 15, at nexStage Theatre of a monologue from a Darfur mother, who explains to her child who her father is.

"I know this community well and because we are giving them a moment they will respond. It's a hard issue to distill," Poole said.

The documentary film about Steidel's experience in Darfur "The Devil Came on Horseback," premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and has been on the film festival circuit ever since. It will be screened privately Saturday, March 17, at the nexStage Theatre as a benefit for Global Grassroots. Global Grassroots is a non-profit organization started by Stiedel's sister Gretchen Steidel Wallace in 2004 to invest in social entrepreneurs working for women's rights in developing countries.

Wallace will be in attendance at the film with her brother at the Community Library Friday, March 16, to read selections from their book "The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur." Though it won't be released until the end of March, the book will be available at the screening, the reading and Iconoclast Books in Ketchum.

In addition, Steidel will be visiting both The Community School and the Wood River High School to present a talk and slide show of his images.

"We don't always have a chance to do projects like this, but there was a sense of urgency to make this work," Poole said. "So much of this is about education."

Coordinating the Darfur project with The Center, Susan Fierman of Wood River Jewish Community explained that the reformed Judaism in the United States has taken on this effort to help Darfur because genocide in the modern world must be eradicated.

"The money was raised very fast by Edgar Bronfman, Alan and Wendy Pesky, Richard and Judith Smooke, and Larry and Rebejah Helzel," Fierman said. In addition, there was a donation by Kiril Sokoloff and an anonymous donor. "The interesting thing for me," Fireman added, "is that most every event is free and people get to be touched by a global situation that they can do something about.

Bringing "Darfur: A Call for Compassion" to Sun Valley allows for a small community to speak globally. "We can say, 'no, not in our lifetime, not on our watch,'" Fierman said. "People in the Valley don't know what and who is involved. They say, 'well that's happening all over in Africa and thinking I don't want to go to that because it is too depressing.' What's depressing is to put out of our mind."

Raising money for Global Grassroots is a major part of this exhibition, but it also about making a connection to the Darfur people.

"Rape is weapon of this war," Fierman said. "The ones that survive are being ganged raped and are have their own children as well as children from being raped. They are kicked out of their communities because there is a misunderstanding about their rape. These woman are now isolated and in order to eat and feed their children Global Grassroots have built a school and are teaching them to be entrepreneurial, how to make money and supporting them to have a future in Chad."

Darfur: A call for compassion

"Darfur/Darfur" is a photographic exhibition that will be featured at The Sun Valley Center for the Arts Gallery in Ketchum from Wednesday, March 14, through Monday, March 19. The Center will be open on Sunday, March 18 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call The Center 726-9491.

An opening reception on Thursday, March 15, from 5-6:30 p.m. with readings by Adina Porter at 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. will be followed by a lecture and slideshow presentation by Brian Steidle "An American Witness to Genocide in Darfur" at 7 p.m. at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum. This is a free event but tickets are required. To reserve a ticket, call The Center 726-9491.

Authors Brian Steidle and his sister Gretchen Steidle Wallace, founder of Global Grassroots, will hold a reading and book signing for their book "The Devil Came on Horseback: Bearing Witness to the Genocide in Darfur" at The Community Library in Ketchum on Friday, March 16 at 4 p.m. This is a free event.

A private showing of the documentary film "The Devil Came on Horseback" will take place at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum on Saturday, March 17 at 5 p.m. Tickets are $100 donation to Global Grassroots. For more information, call the Wood River Jewish Community 726-1183.

A gala reception with Brian Steidle and Gretchen Steidle Wallace in attendance to benefit Global Grassroots will be held at the Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum on Saturday, March 17 at 7 p.m. RSVP to the Wood River Jewish Community 726-1183.

WARNING: Parental discretion is highly advised for this exhibit and may not be suitable for young children.




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