Backstory: From Shakespeare to Sudan
An English professor becomes an unlikely crusader on Darfur.
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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.' "