WASHINGTON — Classes are over at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. and Eric Reeves should be starting a rest, long needed for a man in the midst of a battle against leukemia. But for the 56-year-old English professor, the summer break will simply give him more time to pursue his passion: stopping the genocide in Darfur.
Every week, Prof. Reeves writes a 5,000-word analysis of the latest events in war-torn western Sudan, where janjaweed militia have slaughtered tens of thousands of people and displaced as many as two million in a conflict that has become the focus of world attention.
Prof. Reeves posts each essay on his personal website, www.sudanreeves.org, an exhaustive compendium of news articles, maps, photos and scholarly works on the Darfur conflict, on which he spends 60 or 70 hours a week. He also sends the essays to an e-mail list of 700 to 800 journalists, politicians and other opinion leaders who share his passion about Darfur.
“David Kilgour is on my e-mail list. So is Romeo Dallaire,” said Prof. Reeves, a native of California whose parents emigrated there from Toronto in the late 1940s. One of his latest essays is an update on the death toll in Darfur, which he now estimates at 480,000 to 530,000, from violence, disease and hunger.
Prof. Reeves is a member of a small coterie of Darfur activists who have succeeded in galvanizing public attention in the United States and transforming what in the past would have been a regional dispute in far-away Africa into an issue of moral principle that has gained the personal support of President George W. Bush.
The group includes Nicholas Kristof, the Pultizer-Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, Jerry Fowler of the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Ruth Messenger of American Jewish World Service as well as other concerned individuals like Prof. Reeves.
A broad-based coalition of Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups, with support from the right and the left, backed by a growing campus movement and the help of celebrities George Clooney and Don Cheadle and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel have given Darfur the kind of attention that the genocide in Rwanda or the bloody conflict in Congo never were able to muster.
That kind of support has been instrumental in getting Washington to supply 90 per cent of the food aid heading to the region, to lean heavily on both the Sudanese government and the largest Darfur rebel group to sign a tentative peace accord last week and to urge the creation of a United Nations peacekeeping force in the region.
“Everyone wanted to forget about the Congo,” said Robert Collins, professor emeritus of African history at the University of California in Santa Barbara. “It was just a great big jungle. It never stirred this kind of interest.”
Prof. Collins said that unlike in Congo, where the motives were complex and the politics were murky, it has been easy for people to see the government-sponsored janjaweed Arab militias as the villain persecuting the largely black tribes of Darfur.
“The janjaweed are really not nice guys,” said Prof. Collins, who credits university students at campuses across the United States for providing much of the impetus for the Darfur campaign. “Who are they persecuting? Innocent civilian farmers, women, children. That makes the issue all that much easier for undergraduates. Here is something that they can see is evil and we’ve got to do something about it.”
Adding to that moral clarity was the declaration by then-secretary-of-state Colin Powell in September of 2004 that the government of Sudan and the janjaweed were responsible for genocide in Darfur.
“Jewish groups have been taken by Darfur largely because of the declaration of genocide,” said Colin Thomas-Jensen, advocacy officer for Africa at the International Crisis Group. “For obvious reasons, it’s a term that resonates with certain communities,” he added, noting that Armenians also attended the recent large Darfur rally in Washington.
The Darfur campaign got much of its impetus from the coalition that had grown up in support of the largely Christian rebels in southern Sudan. It was that conflict that first brought Sudan to Prof. Reeves’s attention.
It was 1998 and Prof. Reeves was immersed in an earlier personal passion, wood turning. A skilled artisan, he created bowls from exotic African hardwoods and sold them at U.S. galleries with proceeds going to his favourite charity, Mdecins sans frontires.
He still recalls a discussion with Joelle Tanguy, head of the charity’s U.S. wing, who told him that southern Sudan was the most ignored humanitarian disaster at the time. “I told her, I’ll see what I can do. As it turns out, it became a life-defining moment.”
Prof. Reeves soon was spearheading the campaign to force Talisman Energy to sell its extensive oil holdings in southern Sudan, accusing the Calgary company of complicity in what he called the genocide of the largely Christian and animist inhabitants of the region.
Over the next four years, Prof. Reeves was a key figure in pressuring major U.S. pensions into dumping their holdings, depressing Talisman’s stock price and forcing it to sell out to an Indian oil firm in early 2003.
Some critics suggest that the Indian oil firm, along with its partners from China and Malaysia, are impervious to the kind of criticism that made a publicly held company like Talisman act with a higher sense of corporate responsibility.
“Talisman always claimed that it was a force for good and a force for moderation.” Prof. Reeves said. “That’s just horse crap.”
Just as peace was arriving in southern Sudan in 2003, Darfur was exploding, so Prof. Reeves changed his focus. He travelled to Sudan to see the crisis first-hand. When he returned to Massachusetts, he was diagnosed with leukemia. It has been a long slog.
He has taken two semesters of medical leave in addition to three semesters of leave without pay for his Sudan work.
“My immune system got hammered by the last chemo so I’m continuing to take anti-bacterials and anti-virals. But I’m feeling great. My energy is where it normally is. Right now, I’m fully in remission. The battle will need to be fought again, but for now, I’m good.”
As for Darfur, Prof. Reeves doesn’t see the signing of the peace accord as any reason for celebration. He is not convinced the pact will hold and does not believe that Western countries will provide the needed soldiers and firepower to turn the weak African Union peace force into a robust UN-sponsored peacekeeping contingent.
“We are putting literally millions of people at risk. It’s unconscionable that the world community watches while these people continue to face extraordinary security threats, extraordinary humanitarian shortcomings, which will only get worse as the rainy-season hunger gap gets worse.”
“I’m terribly pessimistic. I think we can see more mortality in the next half year than we’ve seen to date. These people are so vulnerable. I am deeply dispirited. How can it be that we watch Rwanda unfold in slow motion before our eyes?”