NORTHAMPTON, MASSACHUSETTS–On a recent winter afternoon, one of the most important figures in the campaign for human rights in Sudan and South Sudan gave his labradoodle a scratch on the scruff, stepped out of his house, and ducked into a small adjoining workshop. He picked up a hunk of wood, affixed it to a machine, and flicked a switch. As the wood whirred around, he touched a tool to it, carving out a groove in what would soon become a bowl.
Eric Reeves, 63, is by trade an English professor at Smith College, and by practice an accomplished woodturner. But he is by nature also a tenacious champion on behalf of the voiceless and powerless. As he puts it, the work he does on behalf of that troubled region “defines my life.”
Eric is an armchair activist in the best sense of the term. He has written countless articles, letters and op-eds as well as two books on rights issues in Sudan. He operates an independent information clearinghouse website, sudanreeves.org. He spearheaded a successful divestment campaign for Western businesses in Sudan. He has testified before Congress; spoken at universities, conferences, and rallies; and has consulted with human rights groups. He has been a one-man advocacy machine for people who live very far from his New England college town.
For many years, the extent of his advocacy was the generosity of his donations–he profits of his wood-turning art–to the nonprofit organization Doctors Without Borders. In 1999, however, he happened to meet the then-executive director of the U.S. branch of the organization, Joelle Tanguy.
“Sudan needs a champion,” she told Eric.
“She was not thinking of me. She was thinking New York or London, or someplace, but not me,” Eric says “But nonetheless, I piped up, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ Not knowing–I assure you–not knowing what I meant. But that’s what I said, and I guess I’m as good as my word, because I’ve done everything I can.”
Frustrated by the failure of Western governments to respond and act to an overwhelming crisis, Eric notes that “I’ve seen my task as informing, but also as recording for history.” With a scholar’s awareness of the ways the truth can be obscured and refashioned, Eric believes that his advocacy work will serve as a crucial entry in the historical record of Sudan.
“One of the things I can do, by way of providing justice to the people of Sudan who have suffered so much, is to give an accurate rendering of what they’ve experienced, and why they’ve experienced it,” he explains.
The ‘why’ of Sudan is something that often eludes Western observers, though. “The conflict is complicated in some ways; in other ways is very simple,” he says. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the ruling junta in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, who have been waging a brutal and genocidal campaign against the outer regions: Darfur, South Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, and eastern Sudan for decades.
“It’s a country in which a cabal of ruthless genocidaires has for twenty-four years ruled tyrannically, brutally, with savage survivalist instincts,” Eric says. “And the world has accepted them as a normal interlocutor in international affairs. That acceptance of the Khartoum regime, that refusal to confront it in any serious way, is why war has persisted.”
As Eric’s response shows, however, there is plenty of persistence by those who care–even in the face of serious health issues. After a 2003 visit to Sudan, Eric was diagnosed with leukemia. The disease has waged its own brutal campaign against his body, and only a successful stem cell transplant has allowed him to continue his work. And his compromised immune system means Eric will never be able to visit Sudan again. But, in a sense, he still goes there every day.
Though he is sometimes fatigued from his medical treatment, Eric’s advocacy work serves as a kind of therapy. “Once I start writing about Sudan, everything goes away,” he explains. “I’m in Sudan. I’m writing for the people of Sudan. And, in fact, I get hundreds and hundreds of emails and communications from people of Darfur, South Sudan, even in Khartoum, saying, ‘You are our voice to the world. You are speaking for us. Your heart is our heart.’ It’s difficult to get emails like that and not feel, at once, to be sure, gratifying, but as conferring immense responsibility. If that were true, if I really am speaking for people who cannot speak for themselves, then how can I walk away from that task?
“I can tell you honestly that if, magically, Sudan were to be at peace, with justice prevailing, I would happily retire from advocacy, and go back to my woodturning,” he adds. Until that magic wand is waved, Eric applies the tools at hand to chip away at injustice.
To follow Eric Reeves’ writing on Sudan, please visit http://sudanreeves.org
Video produced for TruthAtlas by Nick Poppy.