After militias loyal to Sudan’s government attacked villagers four years ago to stop a rebellion in the country’s western province, Reeves argued that Darfuris were dying not by the thousands in a civil war, but by tens of thousands in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The ensuing outcry has helped prevent what the United Nations calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” from being even worse.
“Not a single person in the world has done as much for Darfur as Eric Reeves,” says Samantha Power, a Harvard expert on genocide. By fueling the Save Darfur movement, she says, he’s helped save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Yet in an interview at his home near Smith College, where he teaches English, Reeves says he’s never been more frustrated. “It’s exceedingly painful to see the international community do so little to stop this genocide by attrition,” he says. “I’m angry all the time.”
Since the failure of a U.S.-sponsored peace plan last year, fighting has intensified and spread into Chad and the Central African Republic. The rebel movement has splintered. The Janjaweed, as the Arab militias are known, still roam the countryside.
Attacks on relief workers — by combatants and bandits — have forced some agencies to suspend or curtail operations. Most plan to withdraw entirely if things get worse.
In that case, Reeves worries, deaths could skyrocket, especially among the 2.5 million uprooted Darfuris (of a population of 6 million). Overall conflict-related deaths — from violence, disease, malnutrition — may have reached 500,000, he says. That estimate is twice as high as that used by most major news organizations.
Reeves has concluded that the only solution is to pressure China, chief buyer of Sudan oil, with a protest campaign targeting what he calls Beijing’s “Genocide Olympics.” The goal: get China, host of the 2008 Summer Games, to pressure Sudan to admit U.N. peacekeepers. Last year, the U.N. Security Council approved such a mission, but Khartoum has objected.
Some advocacy groups, such as the Save Darfur Coalition, say shaming China won’t work. Reeves is adamant: “We have no other arrows in the quiver.”
An unlikely advocate
The man who would save Darfur has never been there. His academic specialty is Renaissance literature, not international affairs. Although he advocates international military intervention in Darfur, he was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
And he’s had another fight. In early 2003, when Darfur exploded, he learned he had leukemia.
At first, because Khartoum restricted access to outside observers and discouraged mortality studies, it was unclear how many were dying. Reeves kept hearing horror stories. “I thought, ‘Someone has to take charge here,’ ” he says.
He began to extrapolate death estimates from existing studies and reports. In early 2004, when the United Nations estimated that 3,000 people had died as the result of the conflict, Reeves argued that the toll was 10 times higher. Six months later, when the U.N. count reached 10,000 people, Reeves was saying 120,000.
In a February 2004 opinion piece in The Washington Post, Reeves made what may have been the first claim in U.S. mainstream media that what was happening in Darfur was genocide, as defined by an international treaty signed in 1948.
Seven months later, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said that what was happening in Darfur was genocide and that the government of Sudan bore responsibility — a charge Khartoum has rejected.
Reeves has emerged as an authority on Darfur. He’s testified three times before Congress, published more than 100 opinion articles, given many news media interviews and provided advice to celebrity activists such as Mia Farrow, George Clooney and Don Cheadle.
His main effort is a weekly 6,000-word blog, based on a mix of official information, field situation reports, sources in the U.S. government and international organizations, and e-mails from relief workers in Darfur.
It’s mandatory reading, even for those it skewers. “I read Eric Reeves religiously,” Charles Snyder, head of the State Department’s Sudan bureau, once told reporters, “even if it gives me heartburn.”
Reeves can be “shrill,” Power admits. He called former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan guilty of “cowardly diffidence” toward Khartoum.
“Eric is screaming where others are speaking softly or mincing words,” says David Pressman, a human rights lawyer.
Some advocates for Darfur disagree with Reeves. Harvard-based Africa expert Alex de Waal says proponents of outside military intervention without Sudanese permission have a “salvation delusion,” because U.N. troops can’t stop civil war or impose peace. Similarly, many who deplore what’s happening in Darfur, including the United Nations and aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders, decline to call the situation a genocide — a term that compels nations that signed the genocide treaty to stop it.
The suffering in Darfur is “all I care about,” Reeves explains. “I go to sleep at night thinking about it. I can’t get it out of my mind. I’m way too close to it. It’s not a healthy way to live.”
In a time of mass murder, he takes each death personally and says each must be counted.
“We will look back years from now and wonder how, even though we saw what was happening, we still did nothing,” he says.
He works 40 to 60 hours a week on Darfur. He’s used two sabbaticals, taken three semesters of unpaid leave and two others at half pay and refinanced his house. Speaking fees ($1,000 a speech) go for Darfur relief.
He has let old friendships lapse. (“Most people will talk about Darfur for 10 minutes, but they don’t want to do it for an hour.”) His wood-working shop gathers dust. He would love to be able to teach a course on writer Alice Munro, or just to read the Munro biography he got for Christmas.
He tries to find time for his wife and their two daughters. For the younger one, a college senior, his Darfur work was “hard, hard, hard,” Reeves says. “It’s a struggle to see a parent so consumed.”
Even leukemia — which killed his brother in 2000 — hasn’t stopped Reeves.
Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights recalls visiting Reeves in the hospital when he was undergoing chemotherapy. She found him in bed with his laptop open and his cellphone at his ear, doing an interview while hooked up to an IV drip. A nurse waited to give him an injection.
Reeves says that although his red blood cell count has returned to normal, he expects the disease to return. His Darfur work, he says, is a consolation: “Some cancer patients say, ‘Oh, what’s the point?’ I’ve never lacked meaningful work.”