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Alex de Waal: To the Rescue

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

There are many who live by writing, which is brave enough, but few who write to keep people alive. Alex de Waal is in the latter category, an indefatigable writer with an urgent message: There are tribes in mortal danger, whole populations marked for genocide.

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De Waal is co-director of the London-based non-profit organization Justice Africa, a program director of the Social Science Research Council in New York and a fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University. Among his books is Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, co-authored with Julie Flint.

He travels constantly, gathering information through a network he has built diligently over 25 years. He works against heart-stopping deadlines, collecting harrowing testaments, scribbling reports in longhand, faxing leaders who might prompt a bureaucracy to action. In such ways has he kept people alive in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan.

He was born in England in 1963, the son of the chaplain of King's College, Cambridge University. His mother was a historian of monasticism. He grew up in the shadow of cathedrals, in a privileged if modest home. At 18, he volunteered to work in Tanzania, tending lepers and victims of tuberculosis. Although his first degree at Oxford was in the heady realm of philosophy, his second was more concrete, culminating in a PhD thesis on the 1984 famine in Darfur.

He brims with anecdotes about the Sudanese, a people he has come to know and love. He tells of a wise, uncommonly charismatic sheikh, whose youngest child became the leader of the famed, fearsome Janjaweed. How could such a man produce a son who incites others to rape, massacre and torture? But de Waal is a scholar of contradictions, well aware of the world's complexities.

Idealism is not enough, he says. One can be right on principle and still get the justice wrong. "What gives me most satisfaction, and where influence most lies," he says, "is with students. I can write a piece that can grab a policymaker's attention for five minutes and maybe shift policy at the margin." But if he frames an issue well, invests it with the right balance of evidence and passion, he might persuade the young that the world can work differently. And then, he could truly save lives.

-- Marie Arana


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