In ‘All Eyes on the Sky,’ Genocide Expert Uses Fiction to Tell True Stories

Dr. Samuel Totten is an accomplished non-fiction author.

University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions professor emeritus and renowned genocidal scholar is responsible for authoring “Genocide in Darfur: Investigating the Atrocities in the Sudan,” rss/rd /articles/”We Cannot Forget: Interviews with Survivors of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda (Genocide, Political Violence, Human Rights)” and “Genocide by Attrition: The Nuba Mountains of Sudan”, as well as five editions of “Century of Genocide: Critical essays and eyewitness accounts”.

But since retiring from academic life, Totten has left that style of writing behind and turned to fiction, a passion he always wanted to make a priority.

Over the past year, he has published two novels, “Laguna Beach: The Kaleidoscopic 1960s” and “All Eyes on the Sky in the Nuba Mountains.” For Hidden Gems, we chose to tell him about the latter given his personal ties to the area.

Tell me a little about your background. It seems to me, even on the surface, that your time as a genocidal scholar may have also influenced or perhaps inspired your fiction.

I have been studying genocide since 1985. Over the years my work has changed. Initially it was a job I did in the library and wrote analytical pieces — for 12 years I wrote articles on different aspects of the genocide.

You also worked for a couple of organizations in the beginning. What were they?

For six years, I served on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which was the predecessor of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I was an educational consultant before and during the museum’s opening, developing guidelines for teaching about the Holocaust.

Then (my work) turned into what I call other genocides, (what are) not the Holocaust. There are so many books about the Holocaust, but there are less about other (genocide) eg Bangladesh genocide 1971, Iraqi gassing of Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1988. So I started pursuing it.

At some point you went from studying it academically to examining it up close, in person, actually. When was it?

In 2004 I was invited [by the U.S. State Department] join a group of researchers to go to the border between Chad and Darfur to investigate what happened to people in Darfur. The purpose of the investigation was for the United States to ascertain whether or not genocide had been perpetrated. All of that documentation was sent to (then US Secretary of State) Colin Powell and he and his advisers came to the decision that yes, genocide had been perpetrated and, after analysis, was perhaps still ongoing.

I was so taken by the people I met and interviewed and so moved by their stories that I decided to pursue it on my own, returning to Chad and the border to conduct my extensive interviews; so I did it for about two years. I ended up getting (appointed) a Fulbright Fellow based at the Center for Conflict Management at the National University of Rwanda. I was interviewing survivors of the Rwandan genocide. I continued to do it after that too.

How did you manage to swing by yourself?

On my way home to speak at the University of Chicago (of) Darfur, I met a volunteer with Samaritan’s Purse who had just come out of the Nuba Mountains while on a plane to Nairobi. I had tried to enter Sudan without success, but he said he could let me in without a visa. So I started doing it and went back to it twice.

These IDPs had fled Darfur, but instead of going to Chad, they moved to another part of Sudan, right outside this city I flew to. I kept interviewing people from Darfur there.

The second time I was there, there was a huge hustle and bustle. Someone nailed an announcement in the Souk, in the open market, that the Nuba were being killed in a large city not far away. This document in Arabic said to collect weapons and prepare to protect ourselves.

I returned to that region which ended up in war on and off for five years. I put my research aside and transported food to people who were desperate and starting to starve. This is where (began) the genesis of this book.

How did you move?

I illegally crossed from South Sudan to Sudan. There were no roads. I should travel 8-10 hours. There were no hotels. Wherever you stop, if you have a generator, you have electricity. And all the while, bombers are flying over.

To get around I was put in contact with people who had a vehicle that I rented and then I hired a driver and an interpreter. What the rebel group wanted, as I passed through rebel territory, was for me to come up with armed men. They felt you needed security. I didn’t want to do it.

I assume your interpreter helped you not only with the language, but with the cultural norms?

Yes, they laughed because I asked question after question about the terrain, the people, the war going on and the impact on people, constantly asking questions out of sheer curiosity when I came along.

You said you refused security. Did you find yourself in dangerous situations during these trips?

Yes, always but not by the military. I stayed away from ground fighting, but planes (bombers) were flying every single day. Normally, what did we do when we heard the plane — it had to be a bomber because it was a no-fly zone — so every time we heard the plane engine, the driver would stop and everybody would jump off, run into the desert and find a dry river bed, river banks, to descend low or large rocks (to take cover under). If there weren’t any, we just flattened to the ground and hoped for the best.

Once, within about an hour, the vehicle made four squeals and we took off. Lots of people hitched a ride and we probably had 15, 16 people in the back.

If you had to place your book in one genre, what would it be?

Literary fiction. I’m not interested in writing a nice summer read for the beach. My intent from the start was to write literary fiction; what I mean by that is a symbolic structure, the motifs that I use, the different components of the literature, and I do it carefully. I select names, all relevant to the story.

By the way, I appreciate you using the actual terms, some of the common words and phrases, that these people use so I can learn more about their culture. Was it one of your goals to convey some to the average reader?

Was. And the differences in their culture were (steep). They had ways of dealing with medical issues that I would witness that I thought was interesting. Someone had a bloody nose, so we stopped and they scooped up goat feces, these little balls, and shoved it up your nose. They told me this was just one of the things they use from the local tradition, since they have very few clinics and only one large hospital. It’s the same with cuts, you use the leaves pounded into a fine powder and put the mud on the wounds.

How the hell do you get the smell of goat feces out of your nose?

*laughs* I have no idea.

Is this your first time writing fiction?

I majored in English as a college student and I love literature. When I first graduated, I moved to San Francisco and worked on a novel, but it was no good and I decided to find a job that paid me. Over the years I’ve always worked on fiction, but I’ve never settled for anything.

Once I was free to write fiction, it really felt like an incredible freedom. And it’s very different (from what I wrote before). The difficulty that I found initially, after writing non-fiction for so long, was including the details, all these facts, and that’s what I had to walk away from because it was a story that I was telling. There are facts, but I’m not analyzing a genocide or detailing a geopolitical theory or situation, I was telling a story.

Even if it’s fictional, it can still be a commentary on genocide, right?

Decidedly. The genocide took place in the Nuba Mountains in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When I went to the Nuba Mountains, initially to interview about Darfur, the more they shared what they experienced with me, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to conduct interviews and write about the Nuba genocide, because I knew nothing about it.

I wrote a book about it before the war. So there is a section in this book, which details how fearful people were. They knew what their parents and grandparents felt when they came out of the mountains to find a safer place, with food and water, everything in between. There are many facts here conveyed through conversation or one of the characters.

What was challenging about this writing process?

To write a story that is interesting and true to the situation for me; expand and involve other characters, be it military personnel, humanitarians, the only doctor in the mountains, etc. and make it relevant again.

What do you think readers will really latch onto?

I think they will be amazed at how rural and rudimentary their life is there. No roads, no electricity or water, no prompt medical assistance. But I think people will be interested in this character because he has a dilemma. Does he join the rebels to fight? Does he leave Sudan with his family and start a new life? Or does he provide security for his family and go back to Nuba and work on another war-related project?

In this case, he’s a citizen journalist. In battle, he is faced with the choice “Should I join the army?” or “Do I do something equally dangerous, go out on my motorcycle to cover a place that has been bombed?” I hope they will see human history, the human condition and daily bombings.

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