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War & peace

Death | John Garang led south Sudan from the brink of annihilation to the threshold of freedom

Issue: "Space: Dawn of Discovery," Aug. 13, 2005

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."

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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.

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