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Gods of History


March 16, 2006

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Eric Reeves is pissed. A professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, he has devoted himself since 1999 to ending the suffering in Sudan. In that role, he has come to be recognized as among the most expert of experts on Darfur, the war-torn region in western Sudan where African tribes have been systematically targeted by genocidal militias and government enablers.

Reeves has written widely on Darfur in theLA Times, The Washington Post, The Nation and the New Republic, among other publications. He has testified repeatedly before Congress and has raised the issue on radio programs and blogs, including his own, and has spoken to college groups and advised NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Much of his work on Darfur, which includes a successful divestment campaign started last year and a tour of the region in 2003, has coincided with chemotherapy treatment for his leukemia. He is himself not just invested in Darfur; he is heroically fixated. And he’s “pissed,” he says, that the killings continue years after being widely designated as genocide. I spoke to him by telephone.

[Interview by Joel Whitney]

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Guernica: How does a lit professor at Smith College get involved in this area?

Eric Reeves: (Laughs) Long story. The short version is: I met with the executive director of Doctors Without Borders-USA, and we got to talking about Sudan. She said something to the effect of, “Sudan needs a champion”–not thinking about me or anything. But I said something very much like, “I’ll see what I can do.” Now, I assure you I had no idea what I meant when I said that. I certainly didn’t imagine that I’d be in my eighth year of full-time Sudan work in March of 2006. But that’s what happened.

Sudan, I’ve come to discover, is a country which, once it gets hold of you, does not let go. I’ve got a number of colleagues who’ve been working on it even longer than I; and there’s just no more compelling a story, no more compelling an issue, no more compelling a locus of human suffering than Sudan. So [after] working for years on Southern Sudan, when Darfur emerged, I knew.

Guernica: Last summer a poll found that 80% of Americans thought the U.S. should be doing more in Darfur to stop the genocide. How has that rather amazingly widespread concern translated into action these past nine months or so?

Eric Reeves: Well, I lecture on a lot of college campuses and deal with a lot of student groups and grass roots campaigns. Judging from what I encounter, the attention to Darfur on the part of these groups only increases [with time]. There’s obviously a good deal of anguish over the fact that so much political energy and passion have not translated into changes on the ground. But I don’t see any diminution of commitment or concern. In fact, on the contrary, I sense that this is a grass roots movement that is here to stay and will continue to grow. One measure of that is the divestment campaign, which I began in September of 2004 (to no immediate effect). But it’s now one of the driving forces for the Darfur campaign generally.

There was a piece in the LA Times this morning, by some students I’ve been working with closely out in California; they’ve pushed the University of California system to the very brink of divesting from Sudan-related equities. This is a system that has $67 billion in investments. So you put that together with the state of Illinois, the state of New Jersey, the state of Oregon, and at least another dozen states considering divestment, scores of colleges and universities considering divestment… Whatever the Zogby poll may have suggested–and I’m suspicious of all such polls–my own hands-on, day-to-day experience talking to people, lecturing widely, is that the poll’s results can be confirmed by other means.

Guernica: How about at the policy level? Has there been much attention on Darfur?

Eric Reeves: Well, there has. I would say that this is one measure of the success of these grass roots efforts. On the other hand, if you spend your life following Sudan and Darfur, as I do, it’s a cause for very considerable concern on the… the policy, articulated and unarticulated, and implicit in statements by officials of the Bush administration. That’s true whether we’re talking about Robert Zoellick, Condoleeza Rice, or Jendayi Frazier, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. [Frazier] has been particularly unhelpful with her remarks; she has made a series of really stupid comments, attempting to back away from the genocide determination. She said in November, “Well, let’s not be too concerned about levels of violence right now.”

In fact, every month since August, security and violence have attenuated further humanitarian access, to the point where if you look on the wires this morning you’ll see that we’re in an absolutely desperate situation. I wrote about this on the New Republic [website] yesterday. This is all coming home to roost, and this is in large measure not only because of the inaction of the Bush Administration, but the Europeans as well. The Europeans are lagging behind the United States on this.

“It’s very clear to me that over 400,000 people have perished in this genocidal conflict.”

Guernica: What are the positive steps that the Bush administration has taken, besides designating it genocide?

sudan.jpgEric Reeves: (Long pause) Well, (laughs) for everything I could say positively, there is some negative backdrop or obverse. Robert Zoellick, Condoleeza Rice, and Jendayi Frazier make their trips to Sudan but they don’t do anything to put in place a really effective diplomatic team in Abuja. We hear a lot of ranting from John Bolton at the UN. But what did the U.S. get accomplished during its entire month serving as President of the Security Council?–one measly worthless presidential statement. No resolution, no contingent resolution. What did the U.S. accomplish in Addis Ababa during the recent decision to hold onto the mission by the African Union during the next six months? Well, it’s not just the U.S. that’s to blame, but the U.S. clearly wasn’t very effective. So for all the apparent profile that the Bush administration has given to Darfur, I’d say let’s look at the results.

Guernica: How many have died?

Eric Reeves: Well, you’re asking–I would say–the right guy. For two years now, I’ve done very regular mortality analyses surveying all the extant data. It’s very clear to me that over 400,000 people have perished in this genocidal conflict. The only other people to do full-scale assessments of all the data are the Coalition for International Justice, which did the original research which served as a basis for Colin Powell’s genocide determination. And in April of last year, they commissioned an epidemiologist and a statistician who came up with a figure of 390,000. The only other [study] was conducted by a Dutch physician. He arrived at a figure of 305,000 sixteen months ago. That puts his figure, if you account for those months, almost exactly where mine is.

The figure of 180,000, just for the record, comes from a figure promulgated by the UN in March 2005–so, a full year ago. Wire services are content to use a year-old figure [which] did not include violent mortality. It did not include mortality outside the camps–and it was a year ago. Yet that figure continues to be cited by countless wire reports.

Guernica: Who is dying? What are the main causes of death?

Eric Reeves: Through 2004 the primary cause of death was violence. Beginning in 2005, with the humanitarian access secured in the latter part of 2004, there was less violence. Mortality shifted to disease and malnutrition. And by the end of summer 2005, that [humanitarian access] had really begun to diminish the number of people dying from malnutrition and disease. What we’ve seen since August is an increase in insecurity, a continuing attenuation of humanitarian access, which has become catastrophic in recent weeks. In fact, a recent Associated Press piece reported that people are going to die in large numbers in a matter of weeks. These will be primarily the African tribal populations: the Fur, the Massaleit, the Zaghawa, the Birgid, the Dajo, the Tunjur–but also, increasingly, Arab tribal groups, whose migratory routes have been blocked by conflict. [These groups] no longer have access to markets where they can purchase grain, because there are no markets–because there is no grain. The economy is in free-fall. It’s essentially collapsed. There will be no harvest next fall because there will be no spring planting for the third consecutive year this spring. We are looking at full-scale humanitarian catastrophe. And it’s been staring us in the face.

Guernica: So what needs to happen?

Eric Reeves: Security on the ground needs to be provided… Months ago! The African Union cannot do it… Unless you’re willing to put real-deal military resources on the ground–the kind of thing that even Kofi Annan is now calling for–tactical aircraft, sophisticated military intelligence, rocket helicopters: military resources that can only come from NATO countries… The preservation of the security mandate–or actually just a monitoring mandate–by the African Union ensures that there will be no UN takeover of the mission, that there will be no auspices for NATO countries deploying under whatever rubric is diplomatically acceptable. We’re gonna see the AU stumble along in the same way it’s stumbled along since it took on this mission in April 2004 in order to oversee a nonexistent ceasefire.

Guernica: When I interviewed Samantha Power about the Sudan, she listed you as one of her “upstanders”–those who are defying the can’t-do mentality that seems to dominate US-based thinking on genocide. There must a range of emotions you feel about this issue, Eric, when you’ve worked on it for so long. The one that seems to come through, though, is frustration. Are you frustrated?

Eric Reeves: Frustrated beyond any possible description. Angry beyond any possible description. I wake in the night angry. I wrote an Op-Ed for The Washington Post in February 2004, so, over two years ago. The last paragraph reads: “Khartoum has so far refused to reign in its air militias; the Janjaweed [Arab militiamen] has refused to enter into meaningful peace talks with the insurgency groups and, most disturbingly, has refused to grant unfettered humanitarian access. The international community has been slow to react to Darfur’s catastrophe and is yet to move with sufficient urgency and commitment. A credible peace plan must be rapidly created. Immediate plans for humanitarian intervention should begin. The alternative is to allow tens of thousands of civilians to die in the weeks and months ahead in what will be continuing genocidal destruction.” Every word I just read you is as true today as it was two years ago. Imagine living with that knowledge for two years, and you get a sense of why I’m as pissed as I am.

“There are many times when I don’t believe I can improve the situation on the ground but I’m already thinking about the next genocide.”

Guernica: Have you been to Darfur recently?

Eric Reeves: I have leukemia, and my chemotherapy has destroyed my immune system. I was planning on going to Darfur in January 2005. But my leukemia just exploded, so I couldn’t go.

Guernica: Your background, as we touched on, is in literature, particularly Shakespeare and Milton. Does your interest in literature simply get pushed aside as you deal with what you clearly see as a more urgent matter?

Eric Reeves: Actually, the chemo was really pretty awful and I’m just back from a year’s medical leave. Right before that I had a short sabbatical. And I’m easing back into teaching with a half-load. So it’s a little difficult for me to say how things are. But I’m teaching Milton now and there really can’t be anything much more removed from Darfur than a 17th century epic poet. And yet I have to say I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm for teaching. I’m just as excited about teaching Paradise Lost again; I’m teaching the prose works, the early poetry. But they’re two completely different realms; they don’t overlap in any ways. So it leads to a schizophrenic–not simply bifurcated, but schizophrenic–life. But it’s my life and I do the best I can.

Guernica: Is it true that for most of the eight years or so that you’ve been working on Sudan-related advocacy, you’ve been on unpaid leave from Smith?

Eric Reeves: Yes, the work became so consuming, so intense that I just said (laughs), “What are home equity loans for?” When I have taught and done the Sudan work at the same time I think I was a younger, healthier man and I could work 80, 90 hours a week, kind of relentlessly. I don’t think I have the stamina anymore and I certainly don’t have the health…

But I never wake up wondering whether the day is going to be a meaningful one or whether my labors are gonna be worthwhile. They may be futile, but it doesn’t mean they’re not important, in a moral sense and in an historical sense.

Guernica: How do the violent deaths in Darfur, the ones you said you’ve been living with for two years, with no shortage of anger, take place?

Eric Reeves: The Janjaweed attacks villages, annihilating everybody on the ground; destroys food stuff; burns seeds and agricultural implements; destroys everything that might sustain life. They cut down fruit trees. It takes a long time to cut down a fruit tree. But it’s saying to these people, don’t even think about coming back. Corpses are thrown into water wells. Water is very, very scarce. One corpse in a well destroys the viability of the well. Levels of destruction–human destruction, physical destruction–are unfathomably great. The cruelty is unspeakable: children thrown into fires before their parents; girls as young as eight raped serially–gang-raped. I could go on and on. It’s all there to be read in [Nicholas] Kristof’s pieces, my pieces, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group. We don’t lack details about the nature of the genocidal destruction.

I was once talking with The Washington Post editorial board and they found [what I said] sufficiently compelling to use it. I said, “You know, it’s almost as if the gods of history are looking down upon us after our failure in Rwanda, saying, ’You know, we’re going to give you another chance. And this time, to make sure you don’t [mess] up, we’re gonna give you lots of time.’” (Long pause) And what do we do? We fail even more miserably. We’ve had two years at least, in which it is unambiguously clear that what’s occurring is again genocide. I put myself fully, officially on record in December of 2003 saying, “This is so unambiguously genocide that we need to ask why the response is anything other than what [should be] dictated by massive ongoing genocidal destruction.” And here we are in March of 2006.

Guernica: Samantha Power’s book, A Problem from Hell, shows that Americans have never stopped genocide.

Eric Reeves: No! Darfur is just another chapter in that book. Nothing would need to be changed. No modification of the thesis. Just comes as the last chapter.

Guernica: Although Bush actually called it genocide while still in office–making him the first U.S. president to do so. But, as Kristof points out, he then went on to do very little to stop it.

Eric Reeves: Yeah, and Colin Powell said it was genocide in Senate testimony and also said, “Nothing new in the way of U.S. policy follows from this determination.” That, I would argue, marks the end of the Genocide Convention as a useful tool of deterrence.

Guernica: When I spoke with Kristof, he was in a period where he’d found that too much “gloom and doom” could turn readers off. Focusing on the positive in terms of how much just a little humanitarian aid could do to save lives, he felt, was important. I know you said that on college campuses you see a lot of positive engagement. But, overall, I’m guessing you’re not of that same mind-set right now as Kristof’s. But, if you wanted to, are there positives to point to?

Eric Reeves: (Laughs) At the moment, no. There’s nothing. I recently talked to the program director for a major NGO on the ground [in Darfur]–one of the most important–and she was just back. She had spent another five-week stint… I asked her, “Do you see any silver lining? Is there anything that we can seize on as hopeful?” And she thought for a minute and she said, “No.” This is somebody who is right on the front lines.

Guernica: What is that single thing or that single word that motivates you and could maybe motivate others?

Eric Reeves: I don’t know if there’s a single word. Maybe I see it as my moral obligation to see that history renders fully the scale of our failure. There are many times when I don’t believe I can improve the situation on the ground but I’m already thinking about the next genocide. If we don’t record this one accurately the next one is gonna be easier to get under way. There’s already a lot of self-exculpatory history being written. Right across the board. And it’s my task to make sure that such self-exculpatory histories cannot be written.

To comment on this piece: editors@guernicamag.com

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