Robin Kirk
22 December 2002

The News & Observer Raleigh, NC

Journalists covering distant wars know that the challenging part of the job is not getting there, but making the stories they find compelling to us back home. This is no simple task, especially when the journalist writes a book.

To solve this problem, writers tend to employ one of two broad strategies. In one, the journalist becomes an innocent abroad schooled in the complexities of another land and culture, in essence a vessel carrying the reader on a journey of discovery (The New Yorker’s Jane Kramer is a master at this). Equally common is the technique of arranging the story around a single personality or incident. Mark Bowden, of The Philadelphia Inquirer, used the drug kingpin Pablo Escobar to frame “Killing Pablo,” his account of the drug wars in Colombia.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Deborah Scroggins combines both strategies with varying success to frame “Emma’s War,” her book about the brutal fighting and famine that gripped the Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s. She describes herself as the innocent upon her arrival in Khartoum in 1988, “clutching a plastic shopping bag full of newspaper articles about the war in Sudan, the war in Ethiopia, and the war in northern Somalia — the whole mess that was the Horn of Africa.” A “morose and sweaty” U.N. official greets her: “‘Welcome to the seventh circle of hell.’”

But Scroggins is also a portraitist in her quest for the truth about Emma McCune, whose name gives the book its title and also provides its parallel and racier narrative. McCune was an English woman born in India and drawn to Sudan out of a sense of adventure and a desire to help its people. Like Scroggins, McCune was single, arrived about the same time, and was comparably naive. McCune was an aid worker, not a writer, though in the rough places of the world, this distinction is often incidental (Scroggins herself ended up marrying an aid worker who was the son of British missionaries to the Sudan).

Scroggins goes back and forth between her own experience and Emma’s. However, only one of the stories is riveting.

Scroggins’ education in the realities of the Sudan was methodical, but she leads us through it with a capable hand. She quotes a British-Sudanese writer who compares Sudan to a diagram of the human body covered with layers of cellophane that can be lifted to highlight discrete systems. Scroggins continues: “I have often thought that you need a similar kind of layered map to understand Sudan’s civil war. A surface map of political conflict, for example — the northern government versus the southern rebels; and under that a layer of religious conflict — Muslim versus Christian and pagan; and under that a layer of ethnic divisions — Arab and Arabized versus Nilotic and Equatorian — all of them containing a multitude of clan and tribal subdivisions; and under that, a layer of linguistic conflicts; and under that a layer of economic divisions — the more-developed north with fewer natural resources versus the poorer south with its rich mineral and fossil fuel deposits; and under that a layer of racial divisions related to slavery.”

And so on and so on until it would become clear that the war, like the country, was not one but many: a violent ecosystem capable of generating endless new things to fight about without ever shedding any of the old ones.

This is fascinating stuff, and her account of Sudan’s history as a pawn in the affairs of the great powers is well-drawn. But Scroggins insistently pulls her narrative back to McCune, as if worried that her readers will lose interest in a too-dry (or too-black) palette. From Scroggins’ first sighting of her, McCune cuts a dramatic figure. The beautiful McCune steps out of a U.N. airplane, almost 6 feet tall, pale, dark-haired and slender as a model. She was wearing a red miniskirt. She looked as if she ought to be stepping out of a limousine to go to a party, Scroggins writes.

Embedded in Scroggins’ description is the measure of the gulf that in reality lay between the writer and McCune. Scroggins strove to understand and translate Africa, in the hopes of promoting better solutions to its problems. McCune wanted to become it, devour it. She did it with a master stroke, by marrying a violent Sudanese warlord, Riek Machar, and becoming his apologist. Friends and colleagues warned McCune that Machar was a brutal man responsible for several massacres. In response, McCune compared herself to Thumbelina, the tiny girl who finds a tropical home after flying away with a swallow. As second wife (the first, a Sudanese, was stashed away penniless in England), her aspiration was to become the first lady of the Sudan, a white queen on the arm of a black warrior. Her fantasy was cut short in 1993, when she died in a car accident in Nairobi, where she had moved to await the birth of her first child.

Scroggins’ attraction to the McCune story is clear. Here was a white woman forsaking the staid First World to embrace the unpredictable and black Fourth — adventure, sex and war included. In the pages Scroggins dedicates to McCune, I could almost hear the echo of a New York agent counseling her to play up McCune as the hook that would draw American readers to a distant story.

McCune’s story is too shallow to sustain real interest. Ideally, the reader should be able to identify with her in some way and recognize a meaningful transformation from humanitarian to propagandist, a struggle shaped by extreme times and places. But McCune succumbed without a whisper. She comes off as a casually destructive party girl who had no real center, a person who could be blown about by the slightest breeze. McCune teaches us nothing about Africa, but a lot about how easy it is for the dilettantes of the world to buy an airplane ticket to the world’s forgotten places.

Scroggins’ own narrative offers an intricate and warm account of a people and country that has clearly won her heart. She ably draws out the themes that continue to shape Sudan, in particular the tilt toward Islamic extremism that led its leaders to harbor Osama bin Laden in the country’s capital, Khartoum, in the 1990s. For anyone with a thirst to go beyond the day’s headlines, the book is a treasure. Wisely, Scroggins does not cover just the obvious moves made by governments and the warlords, but also the far more interesting roles played by the humanitarian and religious organizations that do so much of the world’s heavy lifting.

Certainly, McCune deserved to be a minor character in Scroggins’ book. But the author would have been better off providing the reader with just one guide: herself.

Emma McCune found the adventure she was seeking in the Sudan. Its price was her life.