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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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