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Eric Reeves
Eric Reeves has not been shy about calling out lawmakers and advising them to divest their investments in Sudan. (AP photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye)

A man obsessed

The crisis in Darfur won't go away, and Eric Reeves can't stay quiet

NORTHAMPTON -- "Steven Spielberg lives in a different time frame than we do," says Eric Reeves , referring to Reeves's allies in the so-called Genocide Olympics campaign. "We live on Darfur time."

It is a warm spring afternoon in this college town where Reeves lives and teaches -- his Shakespeare course at Smith College ended only a few days before -- and the contrast between setting and subject could not be starker.

Near the backyard patio where Reeves sits, a flower garden is stirring to life. Down the street hundreds of Smith students are attending a talk by the Dalai Lama. Reeves' s wife, Nancy, sets out a plate of cookies. If Spielberg were filming the scene, he'd have no problem casting Tom Hanks as the gangly, middle-age English Lit professor comfortably at home amid his Milton texts and daffodils. Yet almost nothing Reeves has to say over the course of three hours is geared for comfort, least of all his comments about Spielberg, who's serving as technical adviser to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

China is a major provider of military, economic, and diplomatic support to the Khartoum regime, and receives 70 percent of Sudan's annual oil exports in return. Ignoring U S and European sanctions against the Khartoum, it has also refrained from pressuring Sudan to allow a U N peacekeeping force into Darfur, where humanitarian groups are under constant threat and, according to Reeves and others, could pull out of the region at any moment.

"If [Spielberg] withdraws now, he drops an atom bomb on the Chinese," Reeves continues. "But he's living in a bubble. Darfur is a security catastrophe threatening to become a human cataclysm. That's what I wake up thinking about every morning."

Thinking about Darfur barely begins to describe Reeves's relationship with the tragedy that has befallen western Sudan over the past four years. At least 200,000 people have died and more than 2 million have been displaced during that period, victims of a brutal counter-insurgency campaign backed by the Khartoum government, according to the United Nations . Last week the Bush administration called for increased sanctions against Sudan, a move Reeves dismissed as "weak and meaningless" on his website posting (sudanreeves.org).

Reeves's blunt (and bleak) assessment came as no surprise to those who've followed his work. As a researcher, writer, lecturer, congressional witness, online analyst, and media source, he's played a key role in focusing worldwide attention on the crisis, from its horrific death toll to its political and economic entanglements, the Sudan-China oil trade being a prime example. His new book, "A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide" (Key Publishing House ), is a distillation of more than 150 pieces Reeves has produced on the subject.

"I fear that to read these accounts," he writes, "is to look into what Joseph Conrad called the 'heart of an immense darkness.' A light is nowhere to be seen."

Geno cide expert Samantha Power calls Reeves "the canary in the coal mine on Darfur."

"Agree or disagree with Eric's style and tone," says Power, "what jumps out is how early and rigorous he was on Darfur. He built an incredible network of contacts on the ground there. After Eric, we couldn't not know what was going on."

The passion -- some might say obsession -- Reeves brings to his work is readily discernible. Academic obligations aside, he devotes at least 60 hours a week to gathering, analyzing, and disseminating data on Darfur and to crafting opinion pieces for newspapers and periodicals (including the Boston Globe). He works out of a cramped home office and admits his social and professional relationships have suffered severely in recent years. One of his closest friends, Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan , calls Reeves a "serial obsessive."

"At some point, Sudan and Darfur became the sole object of Eric's fierce intensity," says Grogan. "I've seen it happen before with things like golf and computer chess." In this case, adds Grogan, "the world is much better off than it was because of golf."

Less obvious is how a 57-year-old English scholar came by this passion in the first place. Or the physical toll it has taken on Reeves, who suffers from leukemia and knows his health could take a downward turn at almost any moment.

"It is a beast I will have to confront again, I know," he acknowledges, adding, "Sudan will never not be part of my life, though. It is my life."

Trained for activism
Reeves grew up in a well-to-do Southern California family, the son of a stockbroker and Goldwater Republican. An outstanding high school athlete and honors student, he was not politically active until enrolling at Williams College, in 1968.

Vietnam was the polarizing issue then. Reeves, who held dual US and Canadian citizenship, turned against the war and elected not to dodge military service but to register as a conscientious objector, a more problem atic choice. To this day, Reeves carries in his wallet the 1972 draft card recognizing his CO status.

After earning a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, Reeves joined the Smith faculty in 1979. Granted tenure in 1986, he was made a full professor in 1992, providing him with "the ultimate job security," as he puts it, to focus on other interests while pursuing the scholarly life.

One interest, wood turning, turned into more than a casual hobby. His pieces began selling nationally, then internationally. Donating all proceeds (more than $100,000 a year at one point) to humanitarian causes, Reeves became familiar to organizations such as Doctors Without Borders. It was during a meeting with that organization in early 1999 that Reeves was urged to adopt southern Sudan, the site of a long and bloody civil war, as his personal crusade. "I'll see what I can do," he promised, a commitment that would have far-reaching consequences.

Looking back, Reeves, without trying to sound immodest, says his academic training was more valuable than he could have imagined in equipping him to do what he does today. "I'm a really good researcher," he says. "I can write quickly and speak fluently. I know how to synthesize data and use a computer. It's as if my entire life was preparing me to become ultimately empowered as an activist."

His public analyses began later in 1999 with a series of op-ed columns. One published in the Toronto Globe and Mail "went off like a bomb," he recalls. In it, Reeves accused a large Canadian energy firm of "complicity in genocide" by doing business in Khartoum. Canadian officials launched an investigation, and three years later the firm pulled out of Khartoum. "It was a galvanizing moment," says Reeves. "It showed me the power of the divestment campaign and how one guy could affect it."

Reeves was merely warming up. Another column ran in The Washington Post as the Khartoum junta was set to join the United Nations Security Council in 2000. Headlined "A U.N. Seat for Genocide," it provoked a fierce counterattack by the Sudanese embassy in Washington. Reeves was no longer a lone voice crying from the wilderness of western Massachusetts. He was a marked man. One critic, David Hoile , director of the London-based European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, fired back with an anti-Reeves broadside sent to every faculty member in the Five Colleges consortium. Reeves was undeterred. "Everyone knew it was transparent propaganda," he says.

In 2003, Reeves traveled to Sudan for the first and only time. He did not tour Darfur but criss crossed southern Sudan, meeting with relief workers and soaking up the region's history and geography.

On the flight home, Reeves felt ill and assumed he'd picked up a bug. A blood test revealed the leukemia, a version of the same disease from which his younger brother had died in 2000. Within a year, Reeves was fully symptomatic and needed several blood transfusions and chemotherapy to survive one episode. Smith College has been incredibly supportive during this period, he says, granting unpaid leaves for his Darfur work on top of the paid leaves covering his cancer treatment.

Retiring from teaching isn't something Reeves is prepared to do. "What's hard is doing it on top of the Sudan work," he says, "but I'm not there yet. In the classroom I don't think about Sudan. I think about 'Paradise Lost' or 'King Lear.' " As for turning up the heat on the Beijing Olympics, Reeves vows to keep pressure on public figures like Spielberg. (A spokesman for the filmmaker declined to comment yesterday.) "I'd like to see this campaign of shame grow and grow," Reeves says. "It's not a boycott campaign. Better the games go on, that the athletes not be punished." Hollywood icons, he promises, will not be getting the same free pass.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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