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A passion for justice

Genocide scholar doubles as education professor.


FAYETTEVILLE ? Samuel Totten remembers the moment his life changed.

It happened at City Lights, the legendary bookstore in San Francisco owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A couple of years out of college, Totten was living nearby, trying his hand at writing a novel. After a daily, five-hour writing session and a cheap meal at a Chinatown restaurant, he'd spend his evenings reading in the bookstore's basement.
On one of those evenings, he happened to pick up a magazine with a cover headline that caught his eye: “Torture in Chile.” The article was by Rose Styron, a human rights activist and journalist.

He'd never really thought about the subject before. As he read the article, he was horrified. First, he was appalled by the suffering of the Chilean people at the hands of their own government in the early 1970s. Second, he was disturbed to find that such brutality was not at all unusual. Why had he, self-described as “fairly well read, and interested in a variety of social issues,” not realized these things were going on? Why had his education failed to enlighten him about all this?

These questions would send him on a life-long journey of discovery. The journey would take him around the world more than once, and bring him to Fayetteville, Ark. But as widely as his travels carried him, they mostly moved in a direct personal line. Once the magazine article awakened his conscience, his own inner trajectory was set.

To understand Sam Totten, it's useful to understand how driven he is. He works at full throttle. And he does several things at once.

These days, he's known internationally for his study of genocide, an interest that grew directly out of the article he read in City Lights. But descriptions of Totten as a genocide scholar invariably add that he's also a professor in the education department at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. It's a bifurcated identity that he shoulders with no outward indication that either of those callings might constitute a full-time career for other academics.

In a series of interviews and e-mail exchanges in preparation for this article, he was amused when asked about his double load and what he did on his free time, if any. “I have little free time,” he admitted. “That is a choice I've made. … I have no hobbies.”

Here's an abbreviated version of the pace he's maintained for years: He's published numerous books on genocide, represented the State Department in interviewing victims of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, and has been developing a master's-level course in genocide studies at the National University of Rwanda. He's often on the go world-wide, speaking at conferences and seminars. This summer, he gave five separate talks at two conferences on genocide in Toronto, and taught a graduate-level course on genocide in Rwanda. The intensity of the pace is normal for him. When he took some time off with his wife and friends for a few days after the conference, he lugged along the manuscript of his latest book so that he could do some last-minute editing in his spare moments.

Meanwhile, he's taught at the university in Fayetteville since 1987. As a professor of education, he's published widely in that field, too. He's done articles in professional journals related to his abiding interest in writing. He's described research into how writing is being taught in the country's schools, and how teachers are often poorly prepared to help their students become better writers.

“Sam's got an outstanding academic mind,” says Sean Mulvenon, a colleague in the education department. “Sam's one of the best.”

A California native, Totten had long planned to become a college professor. His time in San Francisco proved to be an interlude, though a personally momentous one. Advised that he should get all the experience he could in a crowded job market, he took a job as an English teacher at a secondary school in Australia. There, he also contacted the Melbourne branch of Amnesty International. The organization had been mentioned in the fateful article on torture in Chile for its work on behalf of what Amnesty International calls prisoners of conscience around the world.

It wasn't his first time to seek out Amnesty International. Immediately after his bookstore epiphany, he'd contacted the San Francisco office to see if he could help out. It wasn't an auspicious beginning. The only job he was offered involved routine clerical work. But he wanted to do something more than collating and stapling reports. He declined the offer.
In Melbourne, it was different. An organizer encouraged Totten to become a regional coordinator of like-minded individuals who wrote letters on behalf of political prisoners. The letters would go to authorities in the governments of the Soviet Union and Indonesia. The campaigns were intended to keep public attention focused on the plight of those who'd been imprisoned in those countries for political reasons.

In his work as an English teacher, he began finding ways to bring together his classroom and outside interests. He had his students study and discuss reports on the deprivation of human rights, the use of torture by various governments, and the many atrocities that involved the “mass killings of various victim groups.”

His twin interests continued to intertwine, as each fueled the other. Among the more notable of his scholarly publications in education journals were several on the accuracy, depth and soundness of the curricula on genocide studies at various schools.

He uses information on genocide and other atrocities in his classroom instruction of teachers and would-be teachers. “He brings the real world into the classroom,” says Mounir Farah, another colleague in the education department.
To improve his students' writing and teaching skills, Totten pushes them to incorporate material on social issues. “What stands out is his passion for human affairs,” Farah said. “He energizes the students. They feel that passion for social justice.”

“He's a contributor, not an interpreter,” Mulvenon added. When Totten teaches, he's not theorizing. He's been there.
William S. Parsons, chief of staff at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, agrees that Totten's first-hand experience gives him additional legitimacy as a teacher. And there aren't a lot of scholars who combine education and genocide studies, Parsons said. “He's one of a small breed.”

But there are times to ease back on the throttle. Totten tells the story of an education student who happened to attend one of his outside lectures, this one on the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Afterward, the student, clearly touched by Totten's presentation, approached and asked why he had not talked about Rwanda in her class. That time, it wasn't relevant to the course at hand, he told her.

After Australia, Totten took another overseas job teaching English, this time in Israel. His stay there brought him into contact with survivors of the Holocaust.

Some 6 million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust during World War II. But millions of others, considered sub-human or undesirable by the Nazi regime in Germany, were sent to their deaths, too ? including Gypsies and those with handicaps. The Holocaust set the bloody standard by which all other genocides tend to be measured. It was planned death on an industrialized scale, concentration camps that functioned as factories of human extermination, as fine-tuned as a modern assembly line. The victims would be sorted out, delivered to gas chambers for execution, their bodies burned in crematoria, and the remains disposed of, all of it done with chilling efficiency.

Totten's discussions with survivors made the Holocaust personal to him. Then, a visit to Yad Vashem, the memorial in Jerusalem to the Holocaust, provided one more powerful moment. He recalls feeling shattered by the various exhibits. Upon returning to his hotel room, he could only sit “staring into space,” stunned by the inhumanity the memorial documents, he later wrote.

Mervin Jebaraj met Totten while attending the University of Arkansas. As an economics and international relations major, he took no education classes under Totten. But Jebaraj, an Indian citizen from Dubai, was interested in human rights. He got involved in a student organization that was trying to call attention to the troubles in Darfur, the western region of the African country of Sudan.

A chance meeting with Totten led to collaboration between the professor and the international student. Totten eventually became Jebaraj's adviser on his senior thesis, which dealt with the failure of the international community to adequately address several genocides. As adviser, Totten kept bringing Jebaraj's thesis back to the question of what could be done by way of intervention, to focus less on what wasn't workable.

Totten's commitment to understanding how genocides happen and what can be done to prevent them or intervene when they do occur is one side of him. Another is that he's a “practical person” about it all, Jebaraj said. Combine the two and you get someone Jebaraj considers a pragmatic idealist.

The practical side shows up in different ways. Totten once organized the collection of medical equipment for doctors and nurses in the refugee camps in Chad, just across the border from Darfur. He's also co-founder of a fund to provide scholarships for young survivors of genocides. The Post Genocide Education Fund can stretch its donations a long way in a place like Rwanda, where tuition at the country's best universities amounts to only about $1,200 a year.

Jebaraj was president of the student organization STAND (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur) when the group made headlines in Arkansas. That happened in 2007 when the students helped convince the legislature to pass a resolution that encouraged state agencies to withdraw retirement funds from any investments connected to the government of Sudan. The Sudanese government has been accused of direct responsibility for the violence in Darfur.

Totten provided first-hand accounts from survivors that were used to make STAND's case to the legislature. He came by the information personally. In 2004, Totten had been chosen as a State Department representative to travel to the refugee camps in Chad and interview survivors who'd fled from Darfur. The information that he and other observers compiled led to the declaration by Colin Powell, then secretary of state, that a genocide had been perpetrated in Darfur. It was the first time a genocide had been called such by a Western government while the genocide was still happening, according to Parsons of the Holocaust museum.

Six years later, the violence continues in Darfur, but not everybody believes what's happening there is still on the scale of a genocide. True, the level of violence has long been cyclical. It ebbs and flows, but the history is monumentally bloody. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of black Africans in Darfur died as a result of the Sudanese government's policy of massacre, which Sudan excuses as a legitimate response to rebellion. The deaths were from direct attacks by government troops and allied Arab militias or from the malnutrition and disease that ensued. Some 2.5 million other Darfuris have been displaced from their homes, many to the camps just across the border with Chad. The violence followed them. Women have been systematically raped when originally driven from their homes or when they venture out of the camps for firewood. Criminal gangs have sprung up inside the camps and their rivalries add even more chaos to the already dreadful life there.
Through his interviews in the camps, Totten learned how the horrors they experienced continue to affect the victims: “(T)hey are stuck with their harrowing memories of the atrocities they witnessed, the nightmares they often experience while asleep, the fear of being attacked again, the fear of never being able to return home to resume their lives on their land, the sorrow over their losses, especially of their loved ones but also all of their earthly goods.”

After Israel, Totten's early travels continued. He witnessed the South African system of apartheid before it was officially dismantled. He returned to the United States and taught English at a high school in northern California, where he refined his method of instruction again, using human rights issues to stimulate discussion and provide subject matter for his students' writing assignments.

One of his first articles dealing with genocide addressed the easy way of looking at the subject taken by too many politicians, teachers and writers. The outlook is often typified by phrases like “Never again” and “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The words are catchy, but tend to downplay the sad truth that genocide has been “a fact of life in the post-Holocaust world.”

Along the way, Totten picked up two master's degrees, one in English, the other in curriculum and teaching. The early and mid-'80s found him working on his doctorate in education from Columbia University in New York. Upon receiving his Ph.D., he worked for a time as a school principal back in California before joining the University of Arkansas faculty.

Last spring, a small crowd assembled in the community room of the Fayetteville Public Library. They'd come to hear one of Professor Totten's lectures. Like so many others, this talk on genocide covered a lot of ground. But Rwanda was especially on his mind. He's made six trips there since 2006. It's a beautiful country with lush, rolling hills, he tells his audience. But Rwanda has an unhappy past.

In 1994, long-simmering antagonism between two vaguely defined ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, exploded into violence. The causes are complex, as with many genocides. But the hatred between the Hutus and Tutsis was brought to a high pitch by Rwanda's version of talk radio. Over a period of 100 days, from April until early July, 500,000 to 1 million Rwandans, mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were murdered. This was in a country with a population of only about 7 million. Many of the victims were hacked to death by whatever tools were at hand ? mostly machetes, but hoes and other farm implements, too.

The exact number of dead is unknown. Which happens often. When killing reaches the grand scale of a genocide, there's seldom the time or interest to do a proper accounting. (During the Holocaust, methodical Germans proved themselves an exception to the rule.)

When the slaughter ended in Rwanda, partly from exhaustion and partly because of intervention by rebels from nearby Uganda, the devastated country faced an uncertain future. Even today, while there is much talk of reconciliation and moving forward, Totten has found a country with wounds so deep they may never heal. Killers and survivors struggle to find a way to live together.

“If you saw your mother slaughtered in front of your eyes with a machete, after being raped, could you forgive?” Totten asks his audience. Posed as a theoretical question, it's hard enough to answer. For those with first-hand experience of the Rwandan genocide, it's even more difficult.

Reconciliation tribunals have only scratched the surface of the lingering problems, although there's been some resolution. Totten describes a country that often seems to have moved beyond the brutality of the recent past. But, in interviews with Rwandans, he finds much pain that's barely concealed. One of the great needs in Rwanda today is for more counselors able to treat post-traumatic stress. It's as if an entire country continues to suffer from the syndrome, he says.

Part of the national recovery is teaching students what happened and why. Totten found himself a part of this effort when he was asked to set up the master's degree course in genocide studies at the National University. It's a perfect assignment for someone with a background in designing curricula, as well as in genocide scholarship. His frequent trips to Rwanda culminated this summer with him teaching the inaugural course in the program. Among those enrolled in the class were a Rwandan supreme court justice, a member of the parliament, a former justice minister, journalists and researchers. Totten plans more trips back to Rwanda, one as early as next year, as the program develops.

In one more flurry of activity, Totten has just returned from another trip to the Darfur refugee camps along the border with Chad. He spent two weeks there in December, drawn back yet again by a desire to see for himself the latest developments on the ground.

If anything, the situation has deteriorated further. The area outside the camps is overrun by rebels, highway robbers, hijackers and militias. It's dangerous enough that the Chadian government ordered that all road travel along the border had to be made in armed convoys, a marked change from Totten's last visit. Among the reasons he concluded that his trip was a success, Totten offered this grimly ironic one: “I made it back safely. I was not kidnapped, shot or killed, as a good number of individuals have been over the past year as they traveled and worked in eastern Chad.”

But by taking the risk, he was able to get more first-hand accounts of the suffering in the refugee camps. He estimates he conducted more than 200 hours of interviews this time, gathering material to continue his documentation of what's happening there.

With little prospect of change for the better, the refugees have grown even more despondent, Totten said. Their hopes that a new administration in the United States would take a tougher line with the Sudanese government have diminished, as the administration has instead sought a political solution with Sudan. One high-ranking sheik told Totten of the frustration on the part of the refugees with all the promises by world leaders. So far, all the talk has come to nothing, the sheik said.

The study of genocide has been described by one of its practitioners as a peculiar field. After all, it requires looking into the darkest corners of the human soul. Is it even possible for scholars to make a difference? The study of the subject can easily lead to discouragement, even depression. Why not? The same unspeakable acts keep happening, only in different places.

Part of the explanation why those like Totten persist in the work is the steadfast belief, despite so much evidence to the contrary, that the fight is worthwhile, that human beings can push back against the inhumanity around them. Darfur is a good example, says Parsons. Individuals and groups “rose up over Darfur.” They forced the wider world to pay attention to what was going on there.

Totten takes similar consolation. Although the brutality continues, he says that the attention that Darfur has received led directly to a United Nations referral of the matter to the International Criminal Court. And the court eventually brought formal charges against the president of Sudan for his role in what's happening in Darfur. Even when push-back is incremental, Totten says, it represents a response to genocide that goes beyond silence and acquiescence. “I really think we're making progress.”

For Totten, there's an even more personal angle to the question of why bother. In one of the books he's worked on, “Pioneers of Genocide Studies,” he described his own childhood, growing up in a household dominated by a physically abusive father, a Los Angeles cop. Totten tells a series of stories about his childhood and youth, each account another tale of cruelty visited by one human being on those around him. The honesty of the words is gut-wrenching.
He concluded with these words: “The point of this painful and embarrassing confession is that I entered the field of genocide studies with a marrow-deep disdain for those who brutalize others. I also have a deep and abiding concern for victims of brutes. That is the foundation on which my subsequent and lifelong concern about human rights and genocide is built.”

This school year, Totten is taking a leave from the University of Arkansas. He's been invited to teach at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, where he holds the Ida King chair. The chair brings in scholars to teach for a year on the subject of genocide and the Holocaust.

It's another chance for Professor Totten to spread the word: If the genocides continue, our understanding of them must keep growing, too. And the understanding must go beyond mere hand-wringing. It's not enough to know what happened, or even why. It's even more important to discover what can be done to prevent the next genocide, or how to intervene once another one breaks out.

That's the two sides of him talking, the passionate believer in human rights and the committed teacher. While he's trying to make a difference, he's also trying to inspire others to do the same.

Just ask his friend William Parsons of the Holocaust Museum: “The world would be a better place if there were more like him.”

George Arnold was an Arkansas newspaper reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He writes from Springdale.

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