In his office, tucked behind rows of shelves on the third floor of Neilson Library, English professor Eric Reeves has been glued to his computer since 7 a.m., even though he’s officially on leave this year. He’s been sending e-mails around the globe as he and his correspondents await news from the United Nations.
On this September morning, Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to [testify before the US Senate], and it is rumored that he, at last, will label the humanitarian crisis in Sudan a genocide. It’s a long-awaited moment for Reeves and other Sudan watchers, who hope that if America recognizes the violence in Sudan as genocide, the world may finally take notice and take meaningful steps to stop it.
When Powell comes through with a declaration of genocide, Reeves is ready for the phone calls that he knows will come. Reporters from the world’s leading news organizations and wire services—on this day, Reuters, Bloomberg, and the BBC—call Reeves regularly for his reaction to news about Sudan and for his sense of what those events mean for the ongoing crisis.
For Reeves, it’s just another twelve-hour day in his self-made job as one of the world’s leading voices in the call for intervention in Sudan. From his academic office, in which scholarly tomes on Shakespeare and Milton stand alongside oversize maps of Africa’s largest country, Reeves composes scores of op-ed columns for the world’s leading newspapers, writes speeches to deliver to human rights organizations, sends lengthy e-mails twice a week to a long list of opinion makers, and answers phone calls from journalists and activists. He recently collected his writings and posted them on a Web site (sudanreeves.org), where he estimates his six-year archive approaches one million words on the subject.
As shocking as it was, the tsunami that struck southeast Asia was easy to comprehend, and the outpouring of international relief was swift. By comparison, the crisis in Sudan has killed even more people—400,000, according to Reeves’ research—in the last two years, but it remains an underreported story and the international response has ranged from inadequate to nonexistent. The difference, in part, is that few people seem to understand what’s happening in Sudan. As Reeves explains, the Sudanese crisis is a manmade disaster that is complicated by politics, religion, poverty, racism, breakdown of rule of law, geographic isolation, lack of infrastructure, decades of conflict, and, not insignificantly, oil development.
Telling the complex story of Sudan has become Reeves’ consuming passion. His command of the facts, from chilling mortality estimates to every diplomatic action taken or promise broken, makes him extremely effective at keeping Sudan in the public eye.
“The quality of his analyses is always very deep. Sometimes Eric is a bit superhuman in the way he keeps up with everything,” said Washington Post editorial writer Sebastian Mallaby, who in the past five years has written numerous articles on Sudan, many of which were inspired—or at least informed—by Reeves’ writings. “I wrote a column on him a few years ago about the phenomenon of how one person with one computer and a high-gear brain can have such an impact,” he said.
In a column in the Village Voice last October, Nat Hentoff quotes liberally from Reeves’ e-mails about multinational corporations that Reeves claims are indirectly funding the genocide. Hentoff starts his column saying, “For six years, the most passionate, meticulous researcher on the atrocities committed on black Africans in Sudan by the Khartoum government has been Eric Reeves, a professor of English at Smith College. With prodigious energy, he devotes most of his time to writing about this holocaust and informing others, including me.”
About his own efforts to draw the world’s attention to a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions, Reeves has said this, “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.”
Not giving up, it seems, is something Reeves is very good at. At one point in his odyssey of advocacy—when he realized that his long hours in his office were taking too large a toll on him and his family—he tried to quit. “It lasted all of a week,” he said. “I knew then that my voice was too powerful. I couldn’t walk away. I couldn’t leave these people.”
Reeves’ dedication to the cause of peace in Sudan seemed to come out of nowhere. Six years ago, he could have told you very little about Africa’s largest country. At the time, Reeves had been at Smith for twenty years, a well-respected and dedicated English professor who held his students to high standards and loved to show them how to read Shakespeare’s works so carefully that they could never again see them as dry texts. He and his wife, Nancy, to whom he had been married since 1973, were busy raising two teenage daughters—Meredith, now 21, and Hannah, now 19—in a handsome, wood-frame house a block from Smith. He had a thriving avocation as a woodturner, which he pursued in his custom-built shop in the back of his house. His wooden bowls, each a precious, fine-grained beauty fashioned from exotic wood, were fetching good prices in art galleries from Northampton to Portland, Oregon. Reeves was donating all the proceeds to humanitarian causes, first to groups like the local food bank and later to Doctors Without Borders, an international medical relief organization that he had long admired.
It was that latter connection that led him to his “Sudan work,” as he calls it. Over lunch in New York in early 1999, Joelle Tanguy, the American director of Doctors Without Borders, told him that her group, which focuses on short-term crisis relief, was considering pulling out of Sudan because the crisis had clearly become intractable. “Joelle told me, ‘Sudan needs a champion,'” Reeves remembers. “I told her I’d see what I could do.”
That almost casual promise changed his life. He began educating himself immediately, and within months, his opinion articles began appearing in newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer and Toronto Globe & Mail, where he took on Western oil companies whose Sudanese oil development, he charged, was fueling government-sponsored violence there. Soon he was feeding the results of his research to journalists, State Department officials, and humanitarian organizations. His advocacy became so consuming that he found it nearly impossible to balance it with his teaching load; to date, he has taken several extended leaves from the college, including two semesters of sabbatical and three semesters of unpaid leave. “I look at it as postponing my retirement,” he says.
Reeves first traveled to Sudan in 2003 after he’d already been writing about the country for four years. He had wanted to go for a while, but the trip was expensive and difficult to arrange; in his insistence on remaining an independent voice, he had turned down an offer to join a trip with the U.N. Committee on Refugees because, he says, “it would have been crossing a line.” So he arrived in Lokichoggio, Kenya, on Sudan’s southern border, in January 2003, heading without visa or set itinerary into a country of vast expanses and virtually no paved roads, and one whose government had good reason to see him as a threat.
To reach a remote section of southwestern Sudan, he had to hitch a ride in a single-prop plane for a bumpy, five-hour flight. “Flying in to Marial Bai, you don’t know what millennium you’re in. There’s not a shred of evidence to tell you,” he says. When the plane landed, Reeves disembarked and shook hands with a throng of villagers who had come to greet him. “I remember the pilot telling me, ‘You can shake hands, but remember, in Sudan there is no toilet paper,'” Reeves recalls, smiling at his own naivete.
His trip came a few months after a cease-fire promised the hope of an end to the north-south hostilities that had been raging for twenty years. Briefly, the Khartoum government (run by the fundamentalist National Islamic Front) had been attempting to impose Islamic law on the mostly non-Muslim south, home to the Sudanese oil fields. As Reeves toured southern Sudan, he went to bustling marketplaces that were pockmarked with bomb craters and foxholes, and he met children scarred by violence and resistance fighters resolute from years of warfare. “Never have I met more determined people,” Reeves says. “They said, ‘If we are left out of the peace process, we will fight to the last person.'”
Their words turned prophetic, even during Reeves’ visit. “The cease-fire was breaking down all around me,” he says. A month after he left, the violence in the south intensified (and continued virtually unabated until a peace agreement was signed in January 2005). Separate from the north-south conflict, but for similar reasons of political and economic marginalization, another group of rebels formed in the western province of Darfur, leading to a ferocious government crackdown that has become the stuff of headlines: villages bombed and burned by helicopter gunships, marauding Arab fighters known as the janjaweed riding in on horseback to loot the livestock, execute the men, and rape the women and girls. The Washington Post has termed the situation in Darfur a “slow-motion catastrophe.”
Reeves established himself so quickly and effectively as an advocate for peace in Sudan that it’s difficult to believe that he wasn’t a lifelong activist. “This came without precedent in my life,” he says now.
His wife, Nancy, sees it a little differently. “Eric has tremendous will,” she says. “It’s how he lives his life. There have always been things he’s passionate about: his work, his teaching, his family, his woodturning. This level of passion for Sudan didn’t surprise me.”
Charles Eric Reeves grew up in South Pasadena, California, the eldest of three boys and two girls. His English mother and Canadian father, a self-made man, moved from Canada to California after World War II. “I was the first in my family to graduate from high school, let alone college,” he says. His father went to work as a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch, providing Eric and his siblings a comfortable childhood. “I went to a public high school, but it was a superb public school,” he said. “I’ve always been acutely aware of how privileged I was, and that’s taken the form of a feeling of obligation.”
In 1968, Reeves left for Williams College, where his father “paid full freight” for his tuition. On his own, Reeves landed a scholarship that would have supplemented his living costs, but in an act that would presage his later activism, he donated every dollar of it to the Biafra Relief Fund, to aid victims caught up in a civil war in Nigeria. “‘Save Biafra’ was the only button on my backpack,” he recalls.
Reeves was safely ensconced with a student deferment during the peak draft years of the Vietnam War. Still, he chose to doggedly pursue conscientious-objector status. “I regarded this war as so unjust as to not permit me to acquiesce to the military system, especially one that favored people like me,” he says. “It was highly discriminatory.” To this day, he carries in his wallet his draft card with its hard-won 1-O classification.
“That was my last activism until Sudan,” he says. “It was a twenty-nine-year leap.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s in philosophy, he and Nancy, who had met in college on a blind date, moved to Philadelphia, where in 1981 Reeves formally received his Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1979, he took a job as an English professor at Smith College, where he’s been ever since. In 1986 he won tenure, and in 2003, he was awarded the Charis medal in honor of twenty-five years on the Smith faculty. That medal hangs in his office in Neilson, and during an interview he retrieves it, drapes it around his neck, and wears it for the balance of the interview. “This is the first time I’ve worn it,” he says, a bit sheepishly.
In person, Reeves, who is nearly six foot five, is soft-spoken, thoughtful, and generous with his time. He answers questions in meticulous detail, unwilling to gloss over or generalize. Details are important to him, and he’s impatient, even outraged, by what he sees in the media as lazy or inaccurate reporting on Sudan. Similarly, he holds his students to a high standard; he expects them to come to class prepared and on time. “I like classes to start with a bang, with a lot of intellectual force,” he says.
Teaching well is important to Reeves. Even during those semesters, such as last spring, when he works eighty-hour weeks attempting both to teach and “do his Sudan work,” he gives his all to his class. “Once I’m in class, I’m not thinking about Sudan or personal problems. If I don’t teach well, I feel horrible. That feeling has never left me,” he says. “Sudan is a long way from Shakespeare, but in terms of scholarly output, I’m as productive as I’ve ever been.”
His students confirm Reeves’ dedication to teaching. One student, Imbi Fox AC, credits him with bringing Shakespeare to life for her, and rates him as one of her top five professors at Smith. She recalls him once telling the class that he’d have to miss one class because he was going to Washington, D.C., to witness a piece of legislation on Sudan. That was the first she knew of his work outside Smith. “I did a little research on what was happening in Sudan, and it led me to admire him even more,” Fox says. “From all that I could glean, he worked relentlessly to make a difference in the lives of the Sudanese people. In retrospect, I can see that the same caring that led to his work on their behalf is evident in the care that he shows his students. He truly wants each and every one to succeed.”
Whether he’s teaching or on leave, Reeves spends long hours in his office, seldom stopping even for lunch. “That level of commitment is hard to imagine,” said Smith economics professor and longtime friend Mahnaz Mahdavi, who has a neighboring office. “But that’s his personality. For him, it’s all or nothing.”
Reeves acknowledges that his single-minded dedication has taken a toll. “This is very isolating work,” he says, noting with regret the missed opportunities to socialize with academic colleagues, to exercise, to spend more time with his family. Still, Nancy Reeves reminds him gently of the trade-offs. “You’ve gained so much in terms of these very real friendships with your comrades; these amazing and unlikely partnerships,” she says of a handful of fellow activists who Reeves describes as brothers, even though their relationships are almost entirely via e-mail.
Another specter has haunted his work in recent months. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with leukemia. In January, he began intensified medical treatment, and is taking a medical leave this semester. He’s clear that his medical condition is quite private, and that he prefers not to dwell on its effect on him or his work. It did, however, lead him to cancel a second planned trip to Sudan in January, this time with his wife. Had he gone, he could have been there to witness the signing of a north-south peace accord. As it was, he got a call that day from John Garang, the leader of the southern Sudanese cause. “It was very moving to me to have someone who commanded the world’s stage for a day tell me how much he’d wished I’d been able to be present,” Reeves says.
Last fall, as the conflict in Sudan seemed to grow ever more desperate with each new diplomatic failure, Reeves’ determination to make a difference seemed to grow. He embarked on a long string of speaking engagements, mostly at colleges in the Northeast. In early December, Reeves stood before a capacity crowd in a Campus Center meeting room at Smith. His talk, “Darfur and the Politics of Genocide,” was filled with unremittingly grim statistics, leaving his audience of students and members of Amnesty International struggling to find some shred of hope, some way to help. Still, they hung on every word. “In the coming months,” he told them, “hundreds of thousands of people will die. Over 300,000 have already died, and the death toll could conceivably reach to one million human beings. . . . We have already failed in Darfur. The only question is the scale of our moral and political failure.”
So why does he continue? How can he sustain the energy to keep fighting a battle that offers so little hope? He attributes some of it to sheer willfulness. “A psychologist once told me that on a scale of ten, my drive to task completion is a fourteen,” he says. “When I start something, I will finish it.”
[Elise Gibson is the managing editor of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.]