Aid worker drawn into soul of Sudan ; ‘Emma’s War’ is tale of love amid conflict
Stephen Lyons
Special for USA TODAY
17 October 2002


Flamboyant British aid worker Emma McCune favored red miniskirts, risky adventures and African men. The Tall Woman from Small Britain, as she was affectionately called, stood out like a peacock among the khaki-dressed volunteers in southern Sudan’s teeming refugee camps: the result of an endless civil war that has taken more than 2 million lives.

In Emma’s War, Deborah Scroggins weaves the greater issues of Sudan around McCune’s idealism. The messy politics of food, slaves and oil are vividly portrayed. The book tracks terrorism’s routes — including funding from Osama bin Laden — in the Horn of Africa.

McCune’s romantic idealism eventually swept her across the accepted lines of neutrality and objectivity when she became the second wife of local Sudanese warlord Riek Machar. The eventual bloody conflict between two factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) — Machar’s and rival strongman John Garang’s — became known as “Emma’s War.”

Scroggins’ book is a breathtaking and beautifully written story of McCune’s short but controversial posting in the relief industry that dominates post-colonial Africa. (McCune died in 1993 at age 29 in an auto accident in Kenya.)

Scroggins reported on Sudan (and later Somalia) for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the late 1980s and early 1990s and says she was forever changed by her immersion into a senseless war and heartbreaking famine.

Even today, in the middle of a mundane task, Scroggins remembers “the strange hum of the famine camps, the sound of thousands of people coughing and gasping for breath, the contorted faces of the starving men who crossed the river and came to tell me something in a language I couldn’t understand.”

At the time of Scroggins’ reporting, the northern half of Sudan was in the grips of a strict Islamic reform movement led by Hassan Turabi.

In 1991, Turabi invited extremist groups to help him fight the “Crusader-Zionist conspiracy.” Scroggins writes that the worst soon arrived: Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as individual terrorists such as Carlos the Jackal, Abu Nidal, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman and Osama bin Laden, who landed in style in his Gulfstream G-8 jet. In return for Sudan’s hospitality, bin Laden wrote a $5 million check to Turabi’s political party, the National Islamic Front.

In the south, a non-Muslim plurality existed, controlled mainly by the SPLA. Here were the worst refugee camps, a result of years of displacement and famine caused by the civil war with the north. Food designated for Sudan’s starving masses usually was siphoned off first to soldiers.

Scroggins’ description of one camp at Safaha is unforgettable: “It looked like a gigantic picnic of skeletons.”

Against this backdrop, McCune worked tirelessly for the education of Sudanese children. Walking from village to village, her flirtatious personality, infectious persistence and ability to pull resources out of thin air made an indelible mark on the locals.

But she never regained her credibility among the aid community once she married Machar and went to live with gunmen in “a weapon- studded compound.” She became a “symbol of how a relief operation meant to be neutral had become part of the machinery of civil war.”

Perhaps her love for Machar was an extension of her romanticism regarding Africa. The wide-open spaces and wildness, Scroggins writes, appeal to young people brought up within the “tedium of middle-class English life.”

Whatever McCune’s motives, her heart was in the right place. Remarking to a friend, McCune said that, although she was a white European, her soul was Sudanese.