"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
As southern Sudan enjoys the first fruits of peace from the comprehensive treaty it signed with the Khartoum government on Jan. 9, ending a 21-year civil war, hundreds of civilians continue to die violently on a daily basis in Sudan’s western region of Darfur. The situation in Darfur exploded in February 2003 after the Islamic regime disarmed insurgent African groups and left weapons in the hands of Arab militias, which it then hired to control the insurgency. The Arab militias began slaughtering and raping Darfuri civilians and razing their villages, displacing 2 million people and creating an untold humanitarian crisis.
In July 2004, Congress led the world in unanimously declaring the violence in Darfur a genocide, as the Bush administration also subsequently did. And Congress is considering the Darfur Accountability Act, which would take strong steps against the Khartoum regime and provide support for the meager African Union monitoring force that is now in Darfur.
But recent media reports suggest the Bush administration may be backing off its earlier genocide determination, and even trying to neuter the Darfur Accountability Act.
While the world was wringing its hands over Darfur, Smith College English professor and Sudan expert Eric Reeves was taking action on the tragedy. Since becoming involved with Sudan in 1999, Reeves has taken off six semesters to focus on raising awareness about the genocide. His writing has appeared in over 150 publications; State Department officials read his reports, and journalists quote his mortality assessments. Reeves also led the divestment campaign that eventually forced Talisman Energy, a Canadian oil and gas company that was operating in Sudan, to exit the country.
Asked what the world can do now about what he says is “arguably the most destructive civil conflict since World War II,” Reeves told Salon, in a phone interview from his home in Northampton, Mass., “We can pass all the U.N. resolutions we want, but if we don’t see to it that Khartoum is forced to adhere, none of these will make any difference … If we wait for meaningful action from the U.N., we will be waiting forever.” What’s needed to stop the genocide, Reeves said, is immediate humanitarian intervention and military support to protect civilians and aid operations.
How did Sudan become your central preoccupation?
I just finished my 26th year as a professor at Smith. About a dozen years ago, I also began a career as a wood-turner, and found that my work was marketable. I resolved that all the profits I made would go to humanitarian organizations, and that led to contributions to Doctors Without Borders, or Médécins Sans Frontières. In January 1999, I met in New York with Joelle Tanguy, the executive director of MSF at the time, and our conversation turned to Sudan. It was looking more and more intractable; that year, MSF named it the most underreported humanitarian crisis in the world.
At some point, she said something to the effect of “Sudan needs a champion.” And for reasons I couldn’t fully explain, I said, “I’ll see what I can do.” That launched what became a very intensive Sudan career that’s now over six years old.
There have been six semesters in which I’ve found myself doing both Sudan and teaching, and that has been almost overwhelmingly difficult. In fact, three years ago I tried to retire from Sudan work. But I found after a week I couldn’t retire. I’m not unusual in finding that Sudan presents a spectacle of human destruction and suffering that is overwhelmingly compelling. Even before I traveled to Sudan I’d met many Sudanese, looked into many Sudanese eyes — there’s just no way I can walk away from these people. Not with the powerful voice I’ve developed; it registers in a lot of important places.
I can assure you that I won’t rest until peace comes to Darfur, and it is a peace that is sustainable throughout the country.
What was the catalyst for the crisis in Darfur?
The current conflict arose in February 2003 out of the Khartoum National Islamic Front Regime’s asymmetric disarming of African tribal groups, leaving weapons in the hands of Arab militias and taking them away from African tribal groups. That led to an increase in Arab raiding, which was deeply alarming to village leaders.
In the 1980s, Khartoum changed the administrative order by refusing to respect traditional tribal lines of authority. In recent years, they began disarming African villages, which were then completely vulnerable to attacks. One of the precipitating events was the storming of a police station by African villagers who were simply reclaiming their weapons to protect themselves. That act was soon replicated throughout Darfur.
In February 2003, Darfur exploded, and Khartoum was obliged to redeploy forces from the south. In military-to-military confrontations between Khartoum’s regular forces and the Darfuri insurgents — the Sudan Liberation Army (which is different from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the southern movement) — Khartoum began to lose badly. That was the beginning of its recruitment of the Janjaweed, who don’t attack insurgents; they attack civilians. That’s what they were hired to do.
How does the civil war in the south relate to the situation in Darfur?
They are both responses to central tyranny, but they are not directly related. In the catastrophe in southern Sudan, over 2 million lives were lost in 21 years of conflict, over 4 million are internally displaced and another half a million are refugees. The people of southern Sudan have long demanded the right of self-determination, including the right to secede from Sudan.
In Darfur, the issue isn’t secession; it’s greater autonomy, greater political and economic representation. The Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement are the two insurgency movements in Darfur. They are fighting against political and economic marginalization and for a secular democracy. The SLA is fighting to protect their people as the Arab militias attack African villages.
Why was the world so slow to react to the genocide?
In October 2002, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army signed a cessation of hostilities agreement with Khartoum, and major fighting between the South and the North began to slow down. And on Jan. 9, 2005, the parties signed a comprehensive peace agreement.
The United States so wanted a peace agreement. If you look at the lack of commentary from the key Western negotiators in the North-South peace process — Norway, the U.K. and the United States — they were deliberately muting their criticism of Khartoum over its genocidal behavior in Darfur in order to get the North-South agreement completed.
Convinced that the West [really] wanted a North-South peace agreement, Khartoum [figured] that if they could string out a final agreement, the West wouldn’t press them on Darfur. The signal Khartoum sent was: “Don’t push us too hard on Darfur. We’re not quite ready.” In December 2003, the U.N. special envoy for humanitarian affairs reported that Khartoum was deliberately obstructing humanitarian aid to areas where the African population was concentrated. Yet, nobody else picked up on it, either inside or outside the U.N.
Back in January 2004, I would have conversations with my contact at USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] to figure out whether we inhabited the same moral universe as the people around us. It was mind-boggling. We could see what was happening in Darfur, and nobody else could see it. If they saw it, they’d have to react.
Have any of the six U.N. resolutions on Sudan had any effect?
No, and we need only look at the first of these, on July 30, 2004, which had only one demand in it: that Khartoum disarm the Janjaweed and bring its leaders to justice. There has been no progress whatsoever in terms of a response from the Khartoum regime. But beyond that, the Chinese permanent representative to the United Nations has made it clear China will veto any real sanctions measures against Khartoum. China is the dominant player in oil development and production in Sudan, and Sudan is China’s premier source of offshore oil development.
What is the Bush administration’s stance on the genocide?
Bush himself has publicly declared that what is going on in Darfur is genocide. But lately, there seems to be a very troubling policy to lowball the Darfur crisis. We began to see signs of it when [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice had an extensive interview with the Washington Post at the end of March. She was asked repeatedly, “How many troops would be necessary to stop the genocide in Darfur?” Rice said she didn’t know. Are we really to believe a woman as intelligent as Condoleezza Rice has no idea what an appropriate force is to stop genocide? Or is it that she didn’t want to put a number on it, and subject that number to criticism?
Two weeks later, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick traveled to Khartoum. He pointedly refused to answer the question, “Is genocide still being committed in Darfur?” We already had an answer to that question by the State Department as well as Congress, in a unanimous, bipartisan, bicameral vote. Now the State Department is backing away from its earlier genocide determination, because it becomes more and more embarrassing the longer you declare it a genocide but don’t do anything to stop it.
The State Department has issued a document estimating that 60,000 to 160,000 people have died in Darfur. That’s an absolute scandal. It’s not a mortality assessment; it’s propaganda. The document does not provide a single citation or bibliographic reference, not one URL. There is no statistical analysis; there is nothing but bald assertion.
Among actual epidemiological studies of mortality, we have a consensus of 350,000 to 400,000. My most recent assessment has a figure of 400,000. I have written 12 full-scale analyses looking at every bit of data in the public domain, and a good deal from confidential sources, and that includes data from the World Health Organization, the Coalition for International Justice and USAID, as well as from my contacts at the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations.
The Darfur Accountability Act is hardly what you would call silver bullet legislation, but it does ask for serious things to be done. And as Nicholas Kristof wrote in a recent column in the New York Times, he has a letter in which the Bush administration talks about its desire that various provisions of the act be stripped out.
This is an extension of the view that we can’t push the Khartoum regime too hard or we’ll lose the North-South peace agreement. Khartoum sees right through it. It’s the wrong signal to send.
When the U.S. declared the conflict in Darfur a genocide without the backing of the U.N., were we really committing ourselves to anything?
[Former Secretary of State] Colin Powell said no. He essentially said, “We find that it’s genocide; we refer it to an obviously paralyzed U.N. Security Council. Genocide proceeds, but we’ve made our determination and our legal obligations end.”
I would argue that there is ultimately a moral force that creates a legitimacy such that all actions that will stop the genocide are justified. That would include unilateral intervention. That’s politically impossible, but the moral obligation is there, and it should take the form of working publicly to put pressure on the Europeans, NATO, the Arab League and Japan.
What are the short-term and long-term actions needed to resolve the crisis in Darfur?
We need immediate humanitarian intervention, with all the necessary military support, to protect civilians and aid operations that are increasingly at risk of being suspended. The only credible military assessments I’ve seen — the ones that begin not with African Union capacity, or what’s politically possible at the U.N. — range from a low of 25,000 to a high of 60,000. The African Union has no mandate for civilian protection, and it has taken half a year to deploy 2,300 unequipped men. Any force must have an extremely robust mandate to protect civilians and humanitarian operations. It cannot be a monitoring mission, as the A.U. is.
You need to secure the perimeters of camps that have over 2 million people in them. You need to provide a way for people trapped in rural areas to try to get to camp areas. People are desperate to go back to their lands — this is the planting season — but they will not leave the camps unless they are provided security.
And the Janjaweed must be disarmed. If you look at those tasks, and you ask what is required to address them, you’re talking about a force of six to seven brigades of NATO-quality troops, assuming a brigade of 6,000.
Finally, for the next year, as people move back to their homes, we are going to need to ramp up emergency transitional aid. If we don’t, we risk this peace falling apart before it has a chance to take hold. And yet, the U.S. appropriation for emergency transitional aid has been negligible.
What other actions should the U.S. take at this point?
The United States has comprehensive economic and trade sanctions against Sudan. No American businesses are operational within Sudan, but many European and Asian companies that do business with the regime trade on the New York Stock Exchange. That fact has become much more salient in recent weeks, and there is a booming divestment campaign on campuses and among state legislatures directed at clearing investment portfolios of holdings in these companies. Only foreign investment makes it possible for this regime to survive and commit genocide. But there is no sign that the Bush administration is prepared to countenance capital-market sanctions.
Are there any reasons for optimism at this stage?
In Security Council Resolution 1590, passed in March, the U.N. committed to a peace support operation for southern Sudan of 10,700 personnel, including roughly 900 observers. But there is no civilian protection mandate and no mandate to stop the fighting initiated by the Khartoum-backed militias in southern Sudan. (The cease-fire agreement of 2002 has largely held, but there have been many violations, and many of these have targeted civilians.) Going forward, the greatest threat to the North-South peace agreement is the threat of military assault by these militias.
I am hopeful that the comprehensive peace agreement of Jan. 9 will hold — not because I have any confidence in the Khartoum regime but because I think they miscalculated. I don’t think they expected that the U.N. peace operation would have a chance to deploy.
If war resumes in southern Sudan, it will be because Khartoum concludes that too much has been given away in the peace agreement, calculating that it’s better to resume the war before peace really has a chance to take hold. It’s an all-or-nothing state of affairs right now. If [the war] resumes, it will be hell on earth.
Meanwhile, Darfur has captured the attention of a great many people. I don’t know how it happened. I’ve been working on Sudan for six years now, and at the beginning my main frustration was not being able to interest college students in Sudan. Now, I lecture constantly on college campuses. Just look at the number of Darfur Web sites, the number of prominent pieces published on Darfur. I think Congress’ determination that this was genocide was very significant.
But is it too little, too late?
Yes and no. If I’m right that 400,000 people have died, how can we not be too late? The question, though, is too late for what? Jan Egeland, the head of the U.N.’s humanitarian office, estimated in December 2004 that if humanitarian operations were forced to suspend their operations — and some have — monthly mortality could be as great as 100,000 civilians. If that occurs, we’re going to surpass the Rwandan genocide total before the end of the year. That, it seems to me, would be an even greater failure.
I was lecturing at Bowdoin College the other night, and I told the students that I have this fantasy about going to Darfur: I look into the eyes of a little girl there, and I’m told by those who know that she is the last child who would have died a genocidal death but for the efforts that finally, finally stopped the genocide. We’ve already failed, but she is the measure of our success.
San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.More Julia Scott.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)