Decades of deadly conflicts and war churning between north and south in Sudan have claimed thousands of lives and displaced thousands more. Using the power of the written word, English professor and human rights activist Eric Reeves has taken on the challenge of directing the world’s gaze toward the atrocities in Sudan.
/ Published April 1, 2014
As a professor of English, Eric Reeves knows something about the power of the written word. As a human rights activist, he has been amazed by the impact of the digitized word.
In 1999 he was teaching Renaissance literature and looking for a way to help humanitarian organizations. In January, on his 49th birthday, Reeves was at a small meeting in New York with Joelle Tanguy, then executive director of Doctors Without Borders. She had spent much of the 1990s delivering relief to the world’s hotspots and mentioned that Sudan needed a “champion.”
Sudan had been experiencing a violent, intractable conflict that defied the mission of an emergency relief agency. Yet there was no end in sight, largely because the international community was ignoring it.
Something clicked with Reeves, and within weeks he found himself taking on the mantle. By March he had begun to publish editorials on Sudan in newspapers and had created an email list-serve to distribute links to news reports of Sudanese atrocities perpetrated as part of what he soon saw was a drive to control access to oil. He quickly got up to speed on what people were calling an “invisible” conflict, even though war had been churning for decades between the north and south, with a huge cost in lives lost and citizens displaced. A few months later, Reeves published an op-ed in the Toronto Globe and Mail on the role of Canadian oil giant Talisman Energy Inc. in investing resources that in effect fueled the carnage, and he was leading a divestiture campaign that succeeded in pressuring Talisman to pull out.
Fifteen years after first taking on the challenge of directing the world’s gaze toward Sudan, Reeves still doesn’t quite know what to think about the fact that an English professor in a small city in western Massachusetts gets a steady stream of calls from the world’s most important news organizations, that his analysis is published in prominent venues like The Washington Post and that his voice is instantly available to anyone anywhere with a computer.
Reeves attracts the ire of powerful interests with a stake in suppressing the horrors he exposes. By his estimate, two and a half million people died of war-related violence in Sudan between 1983 and 2005 and more than four million were displaced. “These are ghastly figures,” he says. He also hears profound gratitude from people to whose suffering he brings clarifying context. “I have so many emails from so many Sudanese telling me in so many words ‘you Eric, you are our voice to the world.’”
Indeed, Reeves has been unrelenting in marrying his training in what he calls “print culture” to the tools of the digital age to expose successive genocides the Khartoum regime has been fomenting and committing against its own people. He has testified before Congress, published widely and served as a key source of synthesized information for scores of journalists and diplomats.
“You can say a lot of things about Sudan now, but you could never say it is an invisible war,” says Reeves with a sense of satisfaction at having played a role in shining a spotlight on what he pointedly calls “evil.”
Reeves recalls 2004 as a portentous year for events in Sudan and for him personally. In February 2004 he published an op-ed in The Washington Post that is still credited as the clarion call to the world that a genocide was unfolding in the Darfur region in western Sudan that is bordered by Chad. Rebels there, wanting a central government that would share resources and political power with the nation as a whole, were gaining the upper hand militarily. The Khartoum regime responded with a scorched earth campaign using the Janjaweed. These fiercely armed, mounted Arab fighters work with deadly helicopter gun ships to systematically destroy one village after another—slaughtering thousands upon thousands of unarmed non-Arab or African peasants, including children. They had been moving “as a kind of giant wheel of destruction” since the previous April, says Reeves. Besides raping, maiming and killing civilians, they were destroying basic infrastructure like clean water supplies and mature fruit trees, making it impossible for survivors to return. “They were saying, don’t even think of coming back.” His article, which he had been trying to get published for several months by then, represented “the first time anyone had brought together the evidence and characterized what was happening in Darfur as genocide,” he says.
The Washington Post Magazine will soon publish a 10-year retrospective by Reeves on the lasting impact and legacy of his editorial.
The year before that editorial appeared, Reeves traveled to Sudan for the first and only time to see areas he had become intimately familiar with through his research. On returning, he went to his doctor about a bug he was experiencing and learned that he had leukemia.
TruthAtlas, an online magazine featuring multimedia stories about people trying to make a difference in the world, produced a video profile of Eric Reeves in March 2014.
Instead of retreating into himself in the face of the disease, Reeves plowed ahead with his research and advocacy. “If you know as much as I know about the suffering that occurs every day in the lives of millions of people, you can’t turn your back. I don’t want to know what I know and do nothing with it,” says Reeves. That was as true ten years ago as it is today.
Now, at age 64, Reeves readily talks about not being the same person he was before his diagnosis. The treatments—especially importing a new immune system, which seems to have banished the cancer but still wreaks havoc with his mind and body—have left him unable to do many of the activities he used to engage in.
His work on Sudan has been both a calling in the face of the responsibility that comes with knowing and a sort of balm in confronting his own mortality. “To be honest,” says Reeves, “when things have been really tough medically, the best way to get out of myself and the medical travails I’ve been through is to work on Sudan. It obliterates everything else. When I sit down and I’m writing on Sudan, everything else goes away. Even when I was at my worst, I was able to focus with laser sharpness.”
In 2005, at the height of his chemotherapy, Reeves wrote a 10,000-word critique of a United Nations inquiry into Darfur, which he says was “scandalously politicized.” He remembers giving a radio interview from the infusion room at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston while he had a line into his veins. “It was a surreal scene, but I wasn’t going to let anything interfere with my Sudan work by that point.”
Together with his research assistant Madeline Zehnder ’13, Reeves recently published a book-length study (Compromising With Evil: An Archival History of Greater Sudan, 2007–2012) compiling his writings with detailed evidence and accounts of atrocities that keep on mounting. The 500,000-word digital volume is freely available for download on the Internet. One of its virtues, says Reeves, is that the study is searchable, so with a few keystrokes, readers can find information directly related to their interests.
Most recently, his expertise on the region has been called upon to help explain the eruption of a new wave of violence in South Sudan that began on December 15. Since then, he has given dozens of interviews to print and electronic journalists, with multiple appearances on the BBC World News Service and Al-Jazeera America.
The use of the word “evil” in the title of his e-book gives a sense of the passion Reeves brings to the topic. “I’ve thought a lot about evil because I teach Shakespearean tragedy so much,” he says. The concept was also the focus of the cross-disciplinary project “Evil,” which Reeves participated in through Smith’s Kahn Liberal Arts Institute during the 2011–12 academic year
In the case of those who hold power in Sudan, says Reeves, “if evil has a meaning, this is an evil regime.” The word implies “a kind of self-consciousness, which I can be sure is there in the men in Khartoum. They know what they are doing and they choose to do it. They choose to arrogate to themselves all Sudanese national wealth and power, knowing that to keep that power they must destroy many innocent civilian lives.”
Part of the reason he has been able to speak out so forcefully and consistently on the horrific events he meticulously documents is the “moral clarity” the violence in Sudan presents. By now the world knows of Darfur as the site of the first genocide of the 21st century. But, Reeves says, the question of what the international community must do when confronted with ongoing evidence that an entire people is being systematically killed as a matter of policy reveals a yawning divide between international legal theory and practice.
“When I wrote that piece for The Washington Post in 2004, I called for humanitarian intervention—by which I meant putting international boots on the ground to stop genocide,” says Reeves. Today his priority is to “name and shame” actors who protect or even funnel resources to the Khartoum regime, most significantly China, which he says, “did a tremendous amount to build up the domestic arms industry in Sudan.” Oil, he contends, is still at the heart of strategic motivations for aiding and abetting evil leaders.
Reeves’ health continues to be precarious, though he sticks to a morning routine that starts with visiting key websites before drinking his coffee. There, he gathers information on the latest events in Sudan. Google News is on that list as is Radio Dabanga, which he cites as an example of how the Internet profoundly influences the flow of information about conflict zones. Based in the Netherlands, the independent news site collects daily stories from Darfuris on the ground and almost instantly makes them available to the world.
Reeves is also teaching a course on The Technology of Reading and Writing, which gives him an opportunity to reflect on and explore with his students not only the evolution of how words are organized and transmitted but how this shapes society. He starts with the birth of a written culture in ancient Greece and examines how the spread of reading facilitated a broad conversation around specific ideas. The course covers implications of the printing press and later the concept of authorship with the advent of copyright laws in England. He pegs the beginning of the latest quantum leap in how we communicate to 1947 with the invention of both information theory and the transistor, opening the door to something he first heard of in the mid 1990s (a few years before he became involved with Sudan), namely, the World Wide Web.
He expresses his amazement at the power of technology in almost transcendental terms. “At times it has felt as though I am living in an alien body, or I am living in a body that’s not me,” he says. Reeves still marvels at the impact he has been able to have in a way that would have been unimaginable before the digitization of text. He credits email as possibly the single most effective arrow in his quiver. “It has made a tremendous difference in the time in which communication takes place and the comprehensiveness of what can be transmitted,” says Reeves. His to-do list these days includes writing a short book on how electronic communication, in all its forms, shapes the kind of advocacy that has become a driving force in his life.