A black-and-white engraving of John Milton as a young man hangs in Eric Reeves’s office here on the campus of Smith College. On a wall opposite is a photograph of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Well-thumbed copies of Shakespeare’s plays complete the visual evidence of Mr. Reeves’s academic interests.
But this professor of English is not concentrating on Renaissance literature or philosophy now. He is bringing his intellect and his scholarly training to bear on a contemporary issue he finds so compelling that he has devoted his sabbatical year to it.
The issue is Sudan. More specifically, the 16-year civil war there, which has sparked, he says, “the greatest humanitarian crisis of the last half-century.”
Nearly two million people have died, he says. Five million are refugees. Sudan’s people face famine, epidemic disease, and enslavement, in addition to injury and death through military aggression.
“I would not define myself really as liberal or conservative,” Mr. Reeves says. “I am deeply, deeply cynical about American politics, and I’m almost as cynical about ideological profiles.”
“But I know when I’ve seen a morally unambiguous situation, and this is it.”
Galvanized by that certainty, he has become an expert on the current situation in Sudan. A public-policy neophyte, he has nonetheless managed to develop working relationships with the
Sudan desk officer at the U.S. State Department and other foreign-policy officials. He is in close communication with the offices of members of Congress who are pressing for action on the issue.
Mr. Reeves is trying to put Sudan at the center of U.S. foreign policy. And there’s the rub. Despite calls to action by many international groups, including Doctors Without Borders, this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace winner, the strife in Sudan has been, until recently, largely “an invisible war.”
That is beginning to change, and a lot of the credit goes to Mr. Reeves. “I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve never seen a single person in humanitarian advocacy make as much of an impact as he has in a fairly limited period of time,” says Roger Winter, the executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a non-profit group.
“This is it — Sudan center — right at this desk,” Mr. Reeves says, only half joking. In the past nine months alone, his op-ed pieces on Sudan have appeared in the pages of leading newspapers in Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States. In October, when the Canadian foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, issued a major public-policy statement on Sudan, the editor of The Globe and Mail, in Toronto, commissioned a response from Mr. Reeves.
On the most basic level, he explains, the civil war in Sudan is a conflict between the National Islamic Front in Khartoum, the capital, which is in the largely Arab northern part of the country, and a coalition of opposition groups in the largely black south, which is predominantly Christian.
The National Islamic Front deposed the elected government by coup d’etat in 1989 and is attempting to “Islamicize the entire country,” Mr. Reeves says. Civilians in the south have borne the brunt of the war’s brutality; in June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning Khartoum for “systematically committing genocide in southern Sudan.”
Nevertheless, the news media and the Clinton Administration had ducked the issue, Mr. Reeves says — a point he makes often in his op-ed essays. But things are looking up. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright made pointed reference to the conflict during her recent trip to Africa, and President Clinton last week signed a foreign-aid bill with a provision authorizing food aid to the south.
Mr. Reeves reads these actions as taking Sudan off the back burner. “I think the forces of moral outrage are being translated into significant political pressures and commitments.”
How Mr. Reeves became involved in speaking out on Sudan involves Doctors Without Borders and a boyhood passion. “The story really begins here,” he says, pointing to a small collection of beautifully crafted wooden bowls and vases on his desk.
Six years ago, he says, he began to re-indulge a boyhood passion for woodturning. He had taught himself the craft at age 14 by imitating the turners he saw in a film at school about Colonial Williamsburg.
In recent years he has become a master turner, delighting in his ability to “take a beautiful piece of wood and create a perfect profile.” His works are carried in galleries in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle, among other places, fetching as much as $500. “It has been a dream come true as far as second careers go,” he says.
From the beginning, he decided that he didn’t need the extra money, and so he donated his profits to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities. Eventually he settled on Doctors Without Borders as the sole beneficiary — “the best way to leverage my donated dollars.”
“If you get me started, I can go on at great length about how passionate I am about their mission,” Mr. Reeves says. The group requires about $23,000 to set up a cholera field hospital. He is now working on his third such hospital.
“It’s a strange sort of equation. I know that the more beautiful piece I make, the more suffering it can alleviate, because I can charge more money and make more to give to Doctors Without Borders.”
Last year, the group “billed Sudan as, in the wake of Monica Lewinsky, the most underreported story of 1998,” Mr. Reeves says. When its director spoke of the conflict there, he says, “I heard despair in her voice, and something clicked on in me.”
Mr. Reeves says he’s never embarked on anything like this crusade before, but it’s apparent that the seeds were sown early. He grew up in South Pasadena, Cal., and attended Williams College, graduating in 1972 with a degree in philosophy. He was not a political activist, but he remembers being horrified by photographs of starving children in Biafra. “The only button on my backpack was ‘Save Biafra,'” he says. “I gave a modest academic-scholarship award that I’d won to humanitarian aid to Biafra. I’ll never forget those pictures.”
During the Vietnam War, Mr. Reeves applied to his draft board for classification as a conscientious objector. C.O.’s were very hard to come by, and Mr. Reeves’s request was all the more difficult because it was not bolstered by a religious claim. “I made it clear that this was not based on any beliefs other than a profound, deep, moral objection to the war.”
He reaches for his wallet and pulls out his draft card. “Los Angeles SSS,” it says, and in the box labeled “status” is typed the coveted “1-0,” for conscientious objector. “I carry it to this day,” he says. “It’s one of my most sacred mementos.”
In his junior year, Mr. Reeves fell under the spell of an English professor named Clay Hunt, who “showed me how rewarding it could be to study literature.” When Mr. Reeves went on to graduate school, he concentrated on literary theory as well as Renaissance poetry and drama. He joined Smith’s faculty in 1979 and received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981.
Sandy Koufax was Mr. Reeves’s boyhood hero. Now, he says, “it’s Jill Seamon, a doctor who treated kala-azar, a disease unheard of in the West, rampant in Sudan.”
He admires her sacrifice, her perseverance, and her equanimity. “I have very little equanimity,” he says. “I bounce around on this Sudan roller coaster. It’s gut-wrenching. My stomach is in a knot.”
It doesn’t show. Mr. Reeves talks forcefully but with cool reason about his latest strategy — spearheading a disinvestment campaign against Talisman Energy Inc., a Canadian oil company that he says is the only significant North American corporate presence in Sudan.
“We’ll see what one very loud, very committed, very passionate voice can accomplish if it’s really, really focused, and it just doesn’t give up,” he says.
And even though his sabbatical is over this month, he’s not giving up yet. He has decided to take leave without pay next semester to continue his work. “I said to my wife, ‘What are home-equity loans for, if not to save warring African nations?'” Mr. Reeves says. “She gave a wan smile.”
Section: The Faculty
Copyright 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education