For three grueling years, Eric Reeves has been fighting for his life, struggling in a battle with leukemia that he may eventually lose. And in his spare time, sometimes from his hospital bed, he has emerged as an improbable leader of a citizens’ army fighting to save hundreds of thousands of other lives in Darfur.
Pressure from that citizen army helped achieve a breakthrough on Friday: a tentative peace deal between the Sudanese government and the biggest Darfur rebel faction, brokered in part by U.S. officials. We should be skeptical that this agreement will really end the bloodshed — past cease-fires and promises have not been honored — but also rejoice in a glimpse of sun over the most wretched place in the world today.
If the violence does diminish — and that will take hard
work in the months and years ahead — part of the credit will go to Mr. Reeves, a scholar of English literature at Smith College who has used an arsenal of e-mail messages, phone calls and Web pages to battle the Sudanese government and American indifference. He was the first person I know to describe the horrors of Darfur as genocide, and he financed his quixotic campaign by taking out a loan on his house.
Perhaps the most striking distinction in the history of genocide is not between those who murder and those who don’t, but between “bystanders” who avert their eyes and “upstanders” who speak out. Professor Reeves has been a full-time upstander on Sudan since 1999, back when the people being slaughtered there were Christians in the south of the country. He noticed immediately in 2003 that Sudan had diversified into butchering Muslims in Darfur, and his frantic blowing of the whistle helped alert me and others. Visit his Web site, sudanreeves.org, but be careful — his fury may set your computer smoking.
I don’t agree with every bit of Mr. Reeves’s analysis, and sometimes I flinch at his stridency. But there’s no better excuse for stridency than genocide.
While Darfur has been incredibly depressing, the grass-roots movement in this country to stop the genocide is immensely inspiring. (To join, go to Web sites like www.savedarfur.org or www.genocideintervention.net.) The activist kids just bowl me over: girls like Rachel Koretsky, a 13-year-old who organized a rally in Philadelphia, distributed circulars and conducted a raffle to raise money for Darfur as her bat mitzvah charity project. So far, Rachel has raised $14,000 for Darfur.
Or kids like Tacey Smith, a 12-year-old in the farm town of Gaston, Ore. After seeing the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” she formed a Sudan Club with a few friends and has raised $400 for Darfur by selling eggs, washing cars and asking for donations instead of birthday presents. Her best friend’s Christmas present to her was raising $50 for Darfur. Now Tacey is organizing a Darfur fair next month.
President Bush has been more active lately on Darfur, and without the administration’s relentless pushing the peace deal on Friday would have been impossible. But by and large, there has been a vacuum of leadership on Darfur over the last few years, and ordinary Americans — particularly young people — have tried to fill it. I don’t know whether to be sad or inspired that we can turn for moral guidance to 12-year-olds.
Then there are the entertainers. Frankly, I think it’s bizarre that we turn to movie stars for guidance on international relations. But in this case, I bow low to George Clooney, who had the guts to travel to the Darfur area last month, and to Angelina Jolie, who has visited the Darfur area twice and is pushing for action on Darfur more forcefully than almost anyone in Washington.
It gets weirder: “CBS Evening News” decided that genocide wasn’t newsworthy, devoting only two minutes to coverage of Darfur in all of 2005 — but there’s excellent coverage on MTV’s university network and in episodes of the TV show “E.R.” set in Darfur. And one of the best presentations of life in Darfur is in an extraordinary video game developed with help from MTV and available free at www.darfurisdying.com. In the game, you’re a Darfuri, trying to survive as Sudan’s janjaweed militias hunt you down.
So that’s how the response is unfolding to the first genocide of the 21st century: a video game is one of the best guides to understanding the slaughter, and our moral vacuum is filled by teenyboppers and movie stars.
Someday we will look back at this motley army of children and celebrities, presided over by a man struggling with leukemia, and thank them for salvaging our national honor.