The road to John Garang's compound in south Sudan always is an obstacle course of natural and manmade predators. Taut twine signals security checkpoints. Jackrabbits by dozens slow an otherwise break-neck journey. Unbridged streams climb their beds on a moment's notice during seasonal rains.
"One day this will be the Cape Town to Cairo highway," joked a South African businessman. It was near midnight and he was on his way to meet Mr. Garang, leader of one of the longest-lived rebel movements in the world. He sat wedged into the back seat of a Land Cruiser next to me and a guard with an AK-47. The guard looked barely 18. He nodded off, slumping onto my shoulder, the business end of his weapon nudging my knees. Two other armed guards, riding outside on the rear bumper, appeared more alert.
The driver, 37-year-old Atem Garang, raced the rabbits and two gazelles caught in the headlights, weaving in and out of the riverbeds, scattering eagles out of acacia bushes at turnpike speed, with reason: For years the entrance to south Sudan's Kapoeta County has been a nexus of not only borders but threats. National Islamic Front attacks lurk from the north, Ugandan rebels lurk east, and tribal bandits from Kenya roam just south. Atem warned us, cheerfully, that if the rains continued we would be stranded. Locals have a word for the desolate area, kamuto, or "dark place."
Atem is not related to Mr. Garang but like others orphaned by Sudan's civil war adopted the senior rebel leader's name. There was none better, he said. Chauffeuring after dark was normal business. The next morning, we discovered, the compound was swathed in sunlight and peopled not only with Mr. Garang and his wife Rebecca, but with his corps of military commanders. Just back from peace negotiations in Egypt, Mr. Garang gathered all his officers (a risk) to talk over the latest peace proposals. At breakfast he prayed over cornflakes-then sat down to plan for the coming dry season's military offensive.
That was 2001. But for anyone who knew Mr. Garang, that sort of image sprang to mind upon learning of his sudden death July 30. During the 22 years that he controlled both the military and political wings of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, John Garang was a man who prayed for peace and prepared for war.
Mr. Garang, 60, died when the Ugandan helicopter he rode in crashed during a return trip from Uganda to the Kapoeta County compound, now called New Site. Vice president of Sudan for precisely three weeks, he traveled under cover of darkness no more. Following a visit with President Yoweri Museveni and U.S. Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, he, along with seven Sudanese security officials and six Ugandan crew members, perished when the helicopter went down in dense rain and fog.
Was the crash the result of natural or manmade predators? Within hours of the discovery of the wreckage, Mr. Museveni issued a statement with detail about the presidential helicopter used to transport Mr. Garang, which had been recently overhauled and its instrument panel upgraded. He pledged a full-scale investigation, which will likely include U.S. reconnaissance.
It seemed unthinkable for Mr. Garang, always a target of assassination, to die of natural causes or mishap. Since taking office under his former nemesis, President Omar el-Bashir, Mr. Garang had in the last month demanded that pro-Khartoum militias plaguing the south from Uganda and elsewhere be disbanded. His final flight took him over areas inhabited by one of those groups, the Lord's Resistance Army.
For Sudan, a country perennially strapped with famine, persecution, and war, Mr. Garang's death comes at a particularly vulnerable time. A Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south was signed only eight months ago. Mr. Garang was the most pivotal figure in its negotiation, successfully hammering for self-determination in the south, for the right of non-Muslim Sudanese to be free of Shariah, or Islamic law, and for concessions toward sharing oil revenues.
Secondly, 3-4 million Sudanese refugees are poised to return to Sudan following the installation of the "government of national unity" July 9. And ongoing genocide in the western region of Darfur has left up to 300,000 people dead and 2.5 million homeless.
Mr. Garang was particularly adept at keeping his head above such roiling waters. Outgunned, outmanned, and with no air cover, at one low point in the civil war he was down to 44 transport vehicles and surrounded by government forces armed with Chinese tanks, Russian bombers, and Iranian missiles. He fought back to control as much as 40 percent of the south by the time earnest peace negotiations began. And the high points did arrive: At his inauguration on July 9, nearly 6 million Sudanese turned out in Khartoum to celebrate.
How did he cross the threshold from guerrilla to statesman? In part by being a reluctant rebel. A teacher by training, with two post-graduate degrees earned in the United States (along with a stint of military training at Fort Benning, Ga.), he was drafted into the Sudanese army while lecturing in economics at the University of Khartoum.
Forced a year later to combat fellow Africans and Christians in the southern town of Bor, he defected. He soon rose to head the south's growing rebel movement, battling government-imposed famine, forced conversions to Islam and other hardline policies, along with territorial takeover and annihilation. He became an outspoken advocate for secular government, the rule of law, and individual freedom.
Besides fighting Khartoum forces, the SPLM saw its share of intertribal conflict and confronted pro-government militias operating inside the south. It also encountered al-Qaeda during the years when Khartoum gave Osama bin Laden sanctuary and training bases. "We are a subset of global problems that can't be wished away," he told WORLD in 2001, six weeks before the 9/11 attacks.
"This is a guy who had other options but chose to remain in the African bush for over 20 years on the long chance that he might win self-determination for his people," said longtime Samaritan's Purse director and Garang friend Ken Isaacs.
Mr. Garang persevered, by his own admission, "on the strength of conviction that we are fighting a just cause." In 2002 he told a U.S. audience that Islamic fundamentalism would be undermined by democratic development in SPLM territory. "With development we are demonstrating the effectiveness of a better system, in the same way communism was defeated without a bullet," he said.
News of his death sparked riots in Khartoum that killed 100 people. Across Africa flags lowered to half-mast. Word spread rapidly around the world, with U.S. State Department officials along with aid workers, church leaders, and expatriate Sudanese learning Saturday night that his helicopter was missing. As confirmation of his death came in the early hours of Monday morning, 27 refugees from south Sudan gathered to grieve in a two-bedroom apartment in Fargo, N.D. "We had mourning and prayers for the whole night," said Joseph Akol, a 28-year-old refugee attending North Dakota State University. "We called relatives in Sudan about the situation, which was very worse than here. They do not want to go back to slavery."
Mr. Akol became one of Sudan's infamous Lost Boys (see 'I can face whatever comes next'). While living at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, he remembers Mr. Garang visiting the camp in 1988 to put a stop to his own officers recruiting war orphans. "He addressed his commanders, 'If we eat the seeds, where shall we get the seed during the rainy season to plant?'" Future generations will be needed to govern the south in their own time, Mr. Akol, then 11, recalls him saying. It was a speech, he said, that "led some officials into tears." It kept Mr. Akol out of the army and eventually led him to college in the United States.
At New Site, rains subsided long enough to allow a somber single-file line of mourners to view Mr. Garang's casket Aug. 2 ahead of a public funeral scheduled for Aug. 6. A priest led them in hymns and prayers. Mr. Garang's widow Rebecca, standing with three of their six children, stood all of her six feet tall and soothed relatives and friends in a steady voice: "He has gone and you should accept." Mourners hoped that the Garang compound, once welcoming to guests and a sanctuary to comrades, a site of war then peace, would not become a site of war again.