The untimely death of the warlord’s wife
Emma McCune was larger than life; her death was a shock to us allBy John Ryle • 22 December 1997 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 985 words
Yesterday I was driving down Gitanga Road in Nairobi, across the intersection where Emma McCune, the warlord’s wife, died in a car crash four years ago. Recalling her fate, I slowed down too fast, narrowly avoiding a collision with a speeding matatu—one of the overcrowded minibuses that ferry people around and between the towns of East Africa. It was one such matatu that Emma’s Land Rover collided with that night in November 1993 when she and her unborn baby lost their lives. And I thought, not for the first time: what a pointless way to go, dying in a car accident, not the way anyone would choose to leave this world.
Why work in a war zone, in a place so remote that there are no cars or metalled roads, as Emma and myself were both doing at the time—only to die of modernity like people do back home? There’s no romance in road-kill. The deaths of aid workers should link them to the places where they discover their peculiar vocation. Let us be delivered from the random banality of the traffic accident and instead be finished off, one by one, by tropical fevers, or natural disasters, or acts of war.
Emma’s death was a shock for the aid community in East Africa. She was celebrated there as the relief worker who married a rebel, the Southern Sudanese insurgent leader, Riek Machar Teny Dhuorgon. At the time Dr Riek was an area commander in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the Southern Sudanese rebel movement; later he became the leader of a breakaway faction of the same group. Riek already had a wife in England, Angelina Teny, to whom he remained married, which complicated matters, though not in the eyes of people in South Sudan, where polygamy, official or unofficial, is common enough.
These days Riek Machar is not a rebel anymore: he is in alliance with the Khartoum government, and in direct confrontation with his erstwhile companions-in-arms. Last week his forces attacked an SPLA base near the Southern capital, Juba. Emma did not live to see this new phase of conflict. When she died Riek’s rapprochement with Khartoum was still clandestine; it’s possible that she never knew about it. How well she understood the conflict in which she became embroiled is a moot point.
Her life comes under less-than-sympathetic scrutiny in the current issue of Granta, in an article by an American journalist, Deborah Scroggins. Scroggins’ account of the baroque confusion of the disaster zone and the romance of power that led Emma to Riek’s side is impressive, though there’s a hyperbolic tendency: Riek Machar, Scroggins says, is nearly seven feet tall. But he isn’t, unless he has been growing. He’s no taller than me, and I’m six foot one. It’s worth correcting such errors because Scroggins’ article is a serious attempt, by a journalist with an honourable record of covering Sudanese issues, to illuminate the corrupt tangle of relief programmes and civil war that has developed in the disaster zone of the continent. Writing of this kind is a tricky, but worthwhile enterprise.
Emma and Diana
As I was nudging my way—slowly now—through the matatus on Gitanga road, past the site of Emma’s fatal accident, the image of Princess Diana came into my mind. The two of them had something in common, not just the manner of their deaths. They both had glamour, verve, energy, generosity and a love of children; they also had a certain moral vagueness, a need to be the centre of attention, and a degree of manipulative charm.
Emma became not only Riek’s second wife but also, after he and other commanders formed a separate rebel faction, his unofficial international press liaison officer. Previously she had been working for a tiny Canadian aid organization called Street Kids International. (The name’s a misnomer, at least in the Southern Sudanese context: there are few street kids in South Sudan—and not that many streets. But there are certainly hundreds of thousands of desperately needy children.)
Her new role put Emma in an invidious position. Sudanese rebel soldiers, like all soldiers in Africa’s civil wars, routinely consume relief food destined for civilians. Officials of aid agencies may keep quiet about this, or turn a blind eye; they don’t usually actively connive in it. But Emma, according to Scroggins’ sources, did. Worse, the supplies were, in some cases, being taken away from the very children she was supposed to be helping.
Emma also became involved, inevitably, in the internecine conflicts of the SPLA. There are Southern Sudanese today who believe she was a latter-day Mata Hari, the agent of a foreign power—probably Britain—sent to confuse and subvert the liberation movement. Emma may even have enjoyed such speculation about her role. But she was the agent of nobody. The truth is that she was naïve, blithely ignorant of many of the complexities of Sudanese ethnopolitics and romantically loyal to her husband. She rushed in where others feared to tread.
Like many westerners who live in African countries, she enjoyed the chance to be larger than life. Tall and slender, she was stylish even in the bush, with bright, arresting clothes and outsize jewellery. She revelled in the way her marriage shocked and thrilled the Nairobi aid world. And she courted journalists: her life as a warlord’s helpmeet was the subject of feature articles in mass-market British tabloids that are otherwise not noted for their coverage of the war in Sudan. These articles were mostly forgettable; Deborah Scroggins’ Granta piece—precursor of a forthcoming book on the war in Sudan—is a different matter. Cavils aside, it is a worthy example of a useful genre, the prosopography of the disaster zone. It is a story that we can learn from. ★