Backstory: From Shakespeare to Sudan
An English professor becomes an unlikely crusader on Darfur.
NORTHAMPTON, MASS. — If an issue like African famine and strife was ever ready for American prime time, it was not in early 1999 when headlines and late-night punch lines were consumed with Bill Clinton's impeachment and the NATO air war in Kosovo. The American attention span – as measured by talk shows, op-ed pages, and the nascent blogging scene – was booked.
So it seemed an oddly naive time for Eric Reeves, a renaissance scholar (as in Shakespeare and Milton), to start sending distress signals about Sudan (as in perennial ground zero of African ills) from his ivory tower at an elite women's college in the Berkshires. Here was a virtual unknown in diplomatic and humanitarian circles suddenly trying to elbow his way to the table of world conversation.
It was an "overwhelming experience of rejection," recalls the professor, who at the time had never set foot on the African continent but was peddling op-eds to major newspapers about Sudan's struggles with famine, ethnic violence, civil war, and oil intrigue.
The understandable, if cynical, question shadowing his dogged effort was: Who is this guy, and how did he get from Shakespeare to Sudan? Did he throw a dart at a map? "This guy," it turned out, was a formidable new brand of citizen activist. Empowered by the modern bullhorn of the Internet and uncommon moral fortitude, this English professor did find a seat at the table of world conversation – and an influential one at that.
If the Bush administration calls the Darfur crisis in western Sudan "genocide," if those green "Not on our watch" banners cropping up around the nation prick your conscience, and if Hollywood stars drop in on the issue, it's due in no small part to the work of the relentless Smith College professor with a laptop and a thick hide. "As a one-man nongovernmental organization, he has done more than any other individual or group I know of to keep the crisis in Darfur on the agenda of political leaders and the public," says Susannah Sirkin, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.
In the past seven years, Reeves has published hundreds of tart essays. His signature weekly analytical blog is read religiously by hundreds of policymakers involved with Sudan, and Congress has called him to testify several times.
"This is a man who decided to make a difference – and he has," says Ted Dagne, an Africa expert at the Congressional Research Service.
Reeves has a fresh-faced youthfulness. He's gangly tall (6 ft., 5 in.), athletic (golf and skiing), and has a head of enviably thick hair untinged by gray (he's 50-something). So it's startling that, when worked up, he can come off like an Oxford don. His furious eloquence, spoken and written, signals he's not the type for bumper-sticker activism or weekend marches. He clearly needs a larger moral stage.
Though he appeared on that stage out of nowhere in 1999, he wasn't new to activism. In college, he donated his scholarship money to relief for Biafra. Despite qualifying for various draft loopholes during the Vietnam War, he chose to make a point by pursuing conscientious objector status. For years, he donated the profits of his woodworking hobby, turning out buttery smooth objects on a lathe, to the international relief group, Doctors Without Borders. By 1999, he'd donated enough to fund three cholera field hospitals – more than $20,000 each.
The group's US head at the time, Joelle Tanguy, recalls bemoaning over lunch with Reeves the world's "short attention span" with Sudan. Most Westerners given the briefing on the country's searing poverty and ethnic and political violence would feel a twinge of check-writing conscience, she says. But Reeves's vivid imagination of the anguish gave him a literal sense of personal responsibility. "I can't stand human suffering," he says. "I can't stand that I can do something about it and don't."
He can't stand that others don't, either, and that's why keeping Sudan on the public agenda has become a second full-time job – not to mention the reason for having to refinance his house after taking unpaid sabbaticals. Not even the diagnosis of leukemia two years ago and exhausting treatments have diminished his focus. Ms. Sirkin recalls astonishment at seeing him in a hospital bed with laptop and cellphone ablaze in service to Sudan. (Reeves's wife, Nancy, explains the family decided not "to live in fear.")
Reeves's airy den at home and cluttered lair in the Smith College library stacks are full of maps, reports, press clippings, and photos he took on his one brief clandestine trip into southern Sudan on puddle-jumping supply planes in 2003.
His solitary job here in greenest New England, far from the dusty suffering of Africa, is voraciously gathering information from published reports and from kibitzing with anyone going in and out of Sudan (reporters, relief workers, diplomats). He pumps out a 5,000-word analysis each week (www.sudanreeves.org). "That guy writes faster than I can think," one Sudan expert says.
Sirkin describes her first trip to see him: "I thought it's unlikely this guy who teaches English is going to tell us anything about Sudan, [but] his office is Sudan central. He pulled out detailed maps where he'd talk about access points and wadis and road security and particular people in these towns: He even told us what water pills and medicine to bring in our backpack."
Quite simply, Reeves is a gadfly – a blogger with a high wattage audience. But he sniffs at those labels. The difference between him and the Web rabble, he says, is that "I take words extremely seriously and I can make words matter – I can create public realities out of words." Like a wired Prospero making tempestuous "magic" in world affairs, he has conjured some convincing virtual realities. It's one thing, he says, when "Angelina [Jolie] and George [Clooney] say 'it's awful.' " But it's another to "know what to ask for ... what policy will halt it."
Reeves considers divestment and the genocide designation for Darfur two of his biggest successes. In 1999 he was one of the first to criticize international oil companies doing business in Sudan. Their presence helped the Arab-Islamic regime finance its proxies in the civil war with southern Christian minorities. His writing campaign against the Canadian Talisman Oil company pressured major investment funds to sell off Talisman stock, forcing the firm to pull out of Sudan in 2003.
As a separate conflict erupted between Arab nomads and black farmers in Sudan's western province of Darfur in 2003, Reeves compiled his usual intelligence. But as reports of violence by the janjaweed (Arab government-backed militias) and rebels in remote villages mounted, he was infuriated that the official death tallies didn't rise. The UN stayed with a mortality figure of 3,000 for a "scandalously long time," he says. Using anecdotal reports from Darfurians on the ground and population data, Reeves extrapolated his own counts. By the time UN tallies were adjusted to 10,000 deaths in the summer of 2004, Reeves's estimates were 120,000. He now thinks it's as high as 500,000.
Starting in December 2003 he repeatedly submitted op-eds to the Washington Post calling the janjaweed's systematic violence "genocide." Finally, in February 2004, the Post printed what appears to be the first suggestion of Darfur as genocide in a mainstream publication. By the fall of 2004, the Bush administration termed the Darfur crisis "genocide."
Controversy remains over the issue: Many humanitarian groups (fellow travelers of Reeves's) dispute both his math and genocide assertions, worried that this will harden the stance of the Sudanese government. But Francesco Checchi, a London epidemiologist who has worked in Sudan for humanitarian groups, says that Reeves has an activist agenda but "he knows Darfur well." What he's done is "mathematically correct" and "sufficiently legitimate" to establish a high-end count.
To those who think his focus on counting every last death may be diplomatically deleterious, Reeves says, with a tremble of anger in his voice: "If we want to understand how many people are going to die, you better understand how many people have already died."
Reeves likes to point out a bit of sweet vindication in the form of a 2005 Washington Post column framed over his desk. He reads it aloud, in a professorially arch tone: "... his e-mails are too authoritative to ignore. 'I read Eric Reeves religiously,' says Charles R. Snyder, the senior State Department official on Sudan ... 'even if he gives me heartburn.' "