War & peace

"War & peace" Continued...

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

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.


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