EMMA'S WAR, by Deborah Scroggins
Out of her depth
Emma's War by Deborah Scroggins. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002, 389 pp.
Reviewed by Sondra Hale
EMMA'S WAR IS TOLD as an exciting adventure story, drawing readers into the intricacies of the little understood "tragedy of Sudan." The tragedy refers to the longest-running civil war in Africa, begun in 1983, although one could date it to 1955, when southern contingents of the army mutinied and slaughtered northerners. This war has brought famine, displacement and slavery to the Sudanese people, and I am grateful to Deborah Scroggins for exposing its atrocities to a larger audience. Yet her book is problematic in other respects, not the least of which is the focus on Emma McCune, a young British aid worker turned spouse to one of southern Sudan's charismatic military commanders, Riek Machar.
For the better part of Emma's War, Scroggins skillfully interweaves her own experience in Sudan, where she covered the war for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, with Emma McCune's story. Her writing about the war is amazing in its depth, revealing what a skilled journalist can do. But as the book progresses, the thread gets lost and even the chronology seems garbled. In her ending chapters and epilogue, Scroggins stuffs into a few pages too many sage comments about Africa, world politics and the meaning of Emma McCune's life.
Sometimes Emma's War reads like a standard biography with a chronological narrative. At other points, it's more like a war story, and McCune serves simply as a window to the conflict. Then again, it's a critical work of investigative journalism, with Scroggins on the case of "humanitarian" aid abuses, exposing the characters who work the aid circuit. In her prologue, she frames McCune and other aid workers as romantics: "Aid makes itself out to be a practical enterprise, but in Africa at least it's romantics who do most of the work--incongruously, because Africa outside of books and movies is hard and unromantic. In Africa the metaphor is always the belly."
This is a complex book, raising many questions that can only be touched on in a single review. So much film and literature on Africa makes a white person the center of the story-Donal Woods instead of Steve Biko (Cry Freedom), or Ruth First instead of Nelson Mandela and any number of other South African heroes (A World Apart). Emma's War joins a long line of literary depictions of Euroamericans playing out their fantasies, sometimes heroically, against a colonial backdrop--from Joseph Conrad and E. M. Forster novels to Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky to Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient to Olivia Manning's The Levant Trilogy. As Scroggins notes, "Africa's most memorable empire-builders tended to be those romantics and eccentrics whose openness to the irrational--to the emotions, to mysticism, to ecstasy--made them misfits in their own societies."
During my own time in Sudan (six years' residence, spanning several decades), I too lived the colonial life as a white woman, not quite understanding until much later the power of my whiteness. Emma McCune didn't live long enough to begin to understand this power and what it meant in terms of race, class and gender, and Scroggins only tangentially helps readers interpret McCune's life in this way: "She had a vision of overcoming racism through romantic love. She wanted to break the seal of her whiteness--to 'make herself that bridge between black and white,'" in her friend Bernadette Kumar's words.
McCUNE'S STORY runs as follows: she was born in India in 1964 to parents who were remnant figures of the British Empire. A woman of modest means and mediocre academic talents, she first went to Sudan in 1987 when she was 23 to teach for the British organization Voluntary Services Overseas, returning in 1989 to work for UNICEF-funded Street Kids International (SKI). "In my heart, I'm Sudanese," Scroggins quotes her as saying. McCune spent much of the late 1980s in the south in the midst of war and famine, emerging as a high-profile khawagiyya (foreigner) and the wife of Riek Machar, whom she married in 1991. Riek Machar was one of two leading southern guerrilla commanders (although Scroggins insists on calling him a "warlord"), the other being John Garang, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). McCune died in a car accident in Nairobi in 1993, at the age of 29. Along the way with SKI, she opened more than a hundred schools in southern Sudan while also campaigning against the recruitment of child soldiers.
Such an outline, however, reveals very little about the idealism, adventure and risk with which she conducted her life. Nor does it explain why Scroggins chose her as the protagonist of a 350-plus-page book. She writes that McCune's story may "shed some light on the entire humanitarian experiment in Africa. Or at least on the experiences of people like me, people who went there dreaming they might help and came back numb with disillusionment, yet forever marked." But her identification with McCune is a troubled one, filled with self-doubt about the whole enterprise of aid, reportage and just being there. The consequence is a harshness that can be both unfair and suspect. Scroggins seems to be critical of those who disapproved of McCune's marriage to Machar; nonetheless, she writes of McCune: "She had always been attracted to African men, though she can hardly have laid eyes on many Africans in Yorkshire. Her attraction was frankly erotic. She found black men more beautiful than white men, even joking with her girlfriends that the penises of white men reminded her of 'great slugs.'"
A friend of McCune's is quoted as saying, "[S]he would come out of these swamps of hell, walk into my wardrobe in Nairobi, and come out looking like something out of Vogue…." Scroggins hides behind quotes from such "friends" and colleagues that give the impression that McCune was promiscuous, had a particular penchant for Nilotics (a generalized ethnic term that includes the Nuer, the group to which Riek Machar belonged), and was a beautiful but superficial woman who imagined herself an African queen when she was no more than a "warlord's consort." That Scroggins may have the last word on McCune highlights why writing biography can be so vexed, especially if the writer fears her subject because of the horrors reflected in the mirror.
TWO ISSUES ARE CENTRAL to Emma's War, and Scroggins' handling of them shows both the strengths and weaknesses of this book. The first is McCune's role in the Sudanese civil war itself, one of the bloodiest in this and the last century. The war is stereotypically referred to in the Western media and by many scholars as a religious and racial struggle between an Arabized Muslim north and a Christianized African south. Oh, that it could be so simple! Scroggins, much to her credit, uses the "layered map" metaphor of Sudanese British writer Jamal Mahjoub to convey the complexity:
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 map of all the sectarian divisions within those categories; 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 colonial divisions; and under that a layer of racial divisions related to slavery…a violent ecosystem…. (pp. 79-80)
What Scroggins omits is a layered map of colonialisms, wave after wave, that have left the country divided and unable to build a nation. She also omits to gender the war, highlighting the horrible victimization of women and children, as well as the greater role of women in holding together the fabric of society. Still, she teases out many of the complications of oil, political Islam, and myriad militias and parties. To her, no one is a hero; no side is without blame:
The Khartoum elite supplied southern and western tribes hostile to the Dinka with machine guns and encouraged them to form militias to raid the Dinka for cattle and, some whispered, even for women and children…. There was an Arabic saying that summed up the strategy of the northern elite: "Use a slave to catch a slave." The south and its borderlands were divided among many tribes, many militias…. The region was also home to smaller, weaker peoples who had no weapons at all…. They were everyone's victims. For the Sudan People's Liberation Army [the military wing of the SPLM] did its share of raiding, too… It was an ugly business of robbery and revenge…. (pp. 83-84)
Scroggins ably describes the ethnic, regional and personal splits among SPLM members, perhaps best dramatized by the insurrection led by the Nuer Riek Machar against the Dinka SPLM head John Garang. This brought about a temporary coalition between Machar and his group and the northern National Islamic Front, until the two guerrilla leaders were reunited in 2002.
Yet part of the dramatic tension in this journalistic account comes from the question of how important Emma McCune was to the war and its political intrigues. Scroggins tends to be dismissive of her. She accuses McCune of holding "a peculiarly Western idealism that was all the more poignant for being totally out of place in the context of an African civil war. It was not a political vision that truly animated Emma as much as an ideal of romantic love. She was in love with the idea of love and with the idea of sacrificing herself to it." But others have stressed McCune's role as an advisor to Machar, an identification that became a double-edged sword for her when Garang's group blamed her for the insurrection against them. Thus the term "Emma's war"; it was Nilotic custom to name a conflict after a woman who caused it, although it is surprising that Scroggins feeds off such sexism.
The second issue involves Scroggins' critique of neocolonialism in the form of the "humanitarian industry"-that is, aid and the entire culture of helping which inundates many African countries with countless outsiders, few of whom have expertise in the area, know the language, or harbor any deep understanding of the groups with which they work. Their presence is at worst a kind of adventure and at best a display of vacuous idealism. Scroggins is rightly critical of the Nairobi and Lokichoggio expatriate communities whose version of roughing it looks like the Nile Hilton to the local people. Many of these aid workers are women, underscoring the complicity of Euroamerican women in the whole colonial and postcolonial venture.
But Scroggins pays too little attention to the positive contributions of Emma McCune and to her popularity among the Nuer. Almost patronizingly she implies that the Nuer were unable to judge McCune's character for themselves and worshipped her blindly: she quotes one colleague as saying, "Everywhere we went…the Sudanese [the Nuer] seemed happy to see Emma even though she had learnt little of their language. She enjoyed the sort of star attention usually afforded to royalty and celebrities. In villages, people would run up to her car as she drove past, bringing presents and seeking advice." She also tends to accept the snide remarks of other expatriates who might have been envious or felt territorial.
"Everything about Emma had a story," remarked one of her friends. Another commented that McCune "was always on trial with the Sudanese because she was a white woman, and with the expats because she had married Riek...." It seems she was on trial with her friends, too. The gossip of close-knit communities living under a microscope is something that Scroggins could have explored rather than taking so often at face value. Evidently she even left out some of her own interviews that presented McCune in a positive light (as I learned from a personal communication with a southern Sudanese colleague). That so many judgments of Emma McCune were not interrogated for their racism and sexism is troubling, marring a well-told tale about a war that few readers know enough about.
That a young white woman in her twenties can offer readers entry into one of the most complicated and heterogeneous societies in the world suggests that her life is fascinating precisely because of the intersection of gender, race, sexuality and politics it represents. Yet for those of us immersed in Sudan and self-critical of our own presence there, a metaphor Scroggins invokes-that of a cobra spitting into a mirror--is apt. Scroggins says this metaphor reminded her "of how the West is alternately enthralled and enraged by its own reflection in Africa." And it reminded me of why analyzing the spaces some women have invented for themselves in military and political struggles matters.
October 20, 2002, Sunday
BOOK REVIEW DESK
By Deborah Scroggins.
Illustrated. 389 pp. New York:
Pantheon Books. $25.
While Americans have been thinking about other things, a civil war in Sudan that began in 1983 has killed more than two million people. The conflict between the Arab Islamic north and black animist south is so obscure, so complex, so chronic and so devastating that it stands as the emblem of African apocalypse coexisting with Western indifference. The deaths of 10,000 southern Sudanese by slaughter or 100,000 by starvation can occur with hardly a mention in American newspapers.
Deborah Scroggins, who used to cover the war and its famines for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is something of an expert on the difficulty of getting readers to pay attention, and she can be forgiven for building her own account of the Sudanese civil war around the short, happy life of an Englishwoman who became involved in it.
Emma McCune and her husband Riek Machar
with their bodyguards.
Scroggins half-apologizes for this choice in her author's note, but there is probably no other way to get more than a handful of Westerners to read a book about Africa's longest-running war. As Hollywood knows, we need a character to identify with, and it helps if she's young, beautiful and recklessly passionate. In the case of ''Emma's War,'' though, the decision to put an attractive white face on an ugly African war doesn't seem meretricious. In telling Emma McCune's story, Scroggins brings Sudan's agony to vivid life; at the same time, she gives us a lyrical, suspenseful, psychologically acute study in idealism and self-delusion.
Emma McCune was the daughter of fallen English gentry, raised in Yorkshire on a mean income and fantasies of colonial glory. In the early 1980's, when she went off to Oxford Polytechnic and fell in with a group of friends who were obsessed with Africa, she began to live out her birthright without the actual empire: ''They wanted lives with an edge. Although many of them came from colonial or diplomatic backgrounds, they all abhorred the British Empire and blamed colonialism for most of Africa's problems. They felt their romance with Africa somehow set them apart from the restraint and tedium of middle-class English life.''
In the 80's, Africa's famines and the response by rock stars like Bob Geldof of Band Aid infused a generation of Europeans and Americans with this romance. They listened to African music, wore African clothes, fell in love with actual Africans and came to hate the narrow comforts of their lives at home. In 1987 Emma found her way to the hot, starving, fly-ridden country everyone agreed was the worst place of all, and yet one of the most seductive. She fell into a job doing the only thing for which an idealistic, adventurous, unskilled young white person in Sudan is qualified. She became an aid worker.
Among its virtues, ''Emma's War'' presents a brilliant portrait of this misunderstood type. Aid workers in Africa play a role not unlike that of the explorers and missionaries who paved the way for colonialism -- like Charles George Gordon, sent by Queen Victoria to end the slave trade in Sudan, only to find moral clarity ever more elusive, before meeting his fate at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists in Khartoum. ''It's a story that began in the 19th century much as it seems to be ending in the 21st,'' Scroggins writes, ''with a handful of humanitarians drawn by urges often half hidden even from themselves.''
As their 19th-century predecessors carried the flag of Christian optimism, aid workers today bear the burden of human rights idealism for a less confident, more jaded West. While the rich world withdraws from Africa and its endless disasters, the aid workers stay behind to assuage our collective conscience. When war turns whole populations into starving refugees, the power of life and death falls to young white people, and yet their presence usually plays into the hands of one or another armed faction and only sustains the suffering it's supposed to end. Food, guns, desperation, fantasies of goodness: Scroggins calls it ''the intersection of the politics of the belly and the politics of the mirror,'' and the vast inequalities of power leave no one's hands clean. No wonder aid workers suffer from extremes of grandiosity and despair. We imagine them as saints, Scroggins argues, but we have no stomach for the ambiguities and failures of the long haul.
Emma resolved the dilemmas of aid work by ignoring them. Funny, daring, physically brave to the point of foolishness, she wore miniskirts, kept duty-free vodka and copies of Vogue in her tent and had a string of affairs with Sudanese men (white men's penises reminded Emma of ''great slugs''). She also helped set up schools for thousands of southern Sudanese children. Local people called her ''the tall woman from small Britain.'' Scroggins, close to Emma's age and traveling in the same expatriate circles, saw her on only a few occasions, so the book has the quality of a search for an elusive and increasingly legendary woman. She portrays Emma with something like Nick Carraway's disapproval and envy and admiration of that other doomed romantic figure, Gatsby.
The story takes an ominous turn when Emma falls in love with a commander of the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army named Riek Machar. A likable seducer, he enjoyed a reputation as ''the Bill Clinton of Sudan.'' Their affair makes the other aid workers question Emma's neutrality, and the suspicions only deepen when Emma and Riek (whose Sudanese wife and three children are marooned in England) marry in the bush in the midst of another disastrous refugee exodus. Soon afterward, Riek tries unsuccessfully to overthrow John Garang, the leader of the rebel movement, and the revolt of the black south against the Arab north -- ostensibly fought in the name of a ''secular, democratic Sudan'' -- disintegrates into mass killing among southerners along tribal lines.
Garang's forces accuse Riek's new English wife of being a spy and a whore, and they call the tribal fighting ''Emma's war.'' Fired from her humanitarian job, abandoned by most of her expatriate friends, Emma becomes Riek's unapologetic spokeswoman. She refuses to see that she has joined sides with murderers. In this, too, Emma reflects the long tradition of white vanity and illusions about Africa: She ''was not by nature introspective. By temperament she was a campaigner, a fighter, a natural partisan. And to this tendency to pick sides, she added a peculiarly Western idealism that was all the more poignant for being totally out of place in the context of an African civil war. It was not a political vision that truly animated Emma as much as an ideal of romantic love.''
Even as they shun Emma, the more thoughtful aid workers understand that all of them are compromised -- that ''everybody who is there is part of that war.'' In her blithe, willfully blind way, Emma takes this unhappy truth to its logical extreme. She becomes something of a white queen among Riek's Nuer people. Before long, she and Riek are dining on fish that Riek's soldiers have confiscated from a defenseless and starving tribe called the Uduk, who have been driven all over southern Sudan and exploited by every faction in the war. At this point, the narrator's moral tone begins to sound less like Nick Carraway than like Conrad's Marlow in pursuit of Kurtz.
Toward the end, ''Emma's War'' loses a bit of its narrative power. This is almost inevitable, because of the way Emma's life ends (in an automobile accident) and the way Sudan's war doesn't. Radical Islamists in the north, hungry to exploit the south's oil reserves, form a distinctly unholy alliance with Osama bin Laden, a Canadian oil company and Riek himself, who turns up in the pocket of his erstwhile Arab enemies. Earlier this year, Riek, ever the survivor, switched sides again and rejoined forces with Garang. The need to sell oil and the war on terrorism have forced the Islamists in Khartoum to attempt an opening to the West. There are, as always, rumors of a peace accord. Almost 20 years after it began, Sudan's civil war rages on. And Deborah Scroggins, now an ex-reporter and a disillusioned humanitarian, still has no answer for the old Sudanese man who asked her in 1989, ''Why are you people in Britannia and Europe hearing this and not helping us?''
In the end, the heroine of ''Emma's War'' was irrelevant to Sudan. ''She was really nothing,'' says a prominent Sudanese. ''She was just an adventurer. If she were in a European setting, she would never even have been noticed.'' But Emma's dreams, delusions and failures are those of all the white people who have tried to bring their idea of the good to Sudan. This is what makes her story, told so well here, worth telling.
George Packer is the author of ''The Village of Waiting'' and ''Blood of the Liberals.''
Published: 10 - 20 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 12
Kevin Rushby on Deborah Scroggins's biography of a well-intentioned young woman caught up in a brutal African conflict, Emma's War
Saturday March 8, 2003
by Deborah Scroggins
220pp, HarperCollins, £17.99
In Graham Greene's The Quiet American , Pyle is the earnest young American who blunders into an alien culture believing a well-meaning heart is enough to sort out the problems. Instead, his straightforward innocence and romantic simplicity are the very things that pull him into a moral quagmire, causing far more damage than ever a cynical old-timer might have.
Imagine a similar character in a country with several hundred more tribal groupings than Vietnam, a similarly huge number of languages, a sordid history of one half enslaving the other, plus a civil war between north and south that has cost two million lives since 1956 and caused incalculable misery to boot. Africa's largest country, Sudan, can look very bad on paper.
Emma sitting on her bed at Ketbek
Deborah Scroggins, an American journalist, certainly sets a vile enough scene for her account of one, rather unusual, Englishwoman's involvement with Africa's longest-running civil war. "I could only find one person who had ever travelled to Sudan for pleasure," she writes, and nothing here would encourage you to become the second. In her eyes the north is a desiccated hell inhabited by Muslim fanatics, slavers and bigots; the south is capable of natural beauty, but the people are either famished and dying or well-fed and untrustworthy.
Into this, in 1989, arrived Emma McCune, a young Englishwoman with a heartfelt concern for the suffering children of the south and a simple love of black men. Bewitchingly handsome and possessed of great energy and verve, though few qualifications, Emma shimmied her way into a job setting up schools in the rebel-held parts of the south. There she began to show some unexpected qualities: she got things done, she was physically brave, sometimes reckless, and she didn't give a tinker's cuss about the restrictions the UN aid-ocrats tried to put on her.
In the south she got to know Riek Machar, zonal commander in the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army. Love blossomed and, very soon after, her reputation among aid colleagues began to wither and die. Was this old- fashioned suspicion of one who crosses the invisible line and "goes native", or had her simple romantic qualities, like those of Pyle, been perverted by the prevailing madness? Certainly Emma was drawn into a web of political intrigue when Riek broke with the SPLA and started a war within a war. Her use of UN radio channels to call in food flights was said to have led the northern Islamic government not only to bomb the sites she mentioned, but also to accuse the UN of taking the southern rebels' side.
This tale is interwoven with Scroggins's trips to Sudan and a thoroughly researched account of the country's history. That she appears to make sense of all the military campaigns and forced migrations is a testament to her tenacity, but somehow, no matter how high the pile of facts grows, the truth proves elusive. What does emerge is Scroggins's own agenda. When she gets out of Khartoum, pumped up by ridiculous "darkest Africa" rhetoric, her experiences are never far from the machine guns or feeding stations.
She illustrates the northern oppression of the south by suggesting that after independence only one secondary school was allowed and Arabic was the enforced medium of instruction. This is false. She quotes, in purplish prose, the shattered aid worker who wants to do "one clear thing" in all the chaos, and that is to get a southern child out to safety - Europe, that is. The horrors of civil war in the south are all too real, but this account leaves out anything that is good in Sudan and panders to those elements with an anti-Islamic agenda.
Nevertheless, on the subject of famine relief she does land some telling punches, particularly the role of aid agencies and oil companies in the conflict. Ignorance and prejudice emerge at all times. No outsider bothers to learn the tribal languages or read the anthropology of an older, more dedicated generation. Sometimes the sheer horror of it all reminds us of that other literary example of extreme western methods of involvement: Conrad's Mister Kurtz. In one scene, a young aid worker water-skis past crowds of starving refugees, using up precious fuel, while the head of a UN mission wrangles with Riek over his hungry soldiers eating UN rations. Meanwhile, in Somalia, the UN spends $300m on a luxury base in Mogadishu for US troops in Operation Restore Hope - one-third of Somalia's national budget before the war.
All these interventions, so costly in lives and money, make Emma's contribution seem no less naive but far more genuine. She had, after all, more human warmth than any inhabitant of Greene-land. Emma and her unborn child died in a car crash in Nairobi in 1993 but her life deserves remembering, for, like this book, it was flawed but important.
Kevin Rushby's latest book is Children of Kali .
"Emma's War" by Deborah Scroggins
When a beautiful, idealistic Western aid worker fell in love with a Sudanese warlord, a terrible tragedy of hunger and violence was set in motion.
By Michelle Goldberg
Dec. 11, 2002 | "Emma's War" is a tale of high romance and tragedy that offers an epic view of the kind of international issues currently crowding the newspapers. There may be more encyclopedic books on the ugly machinations of oil politics, the destruction well-meaning Westerners can wreak when they interfere in conflicts they cannot grasp, the way failing states incubate terrorism, and the clash between atavistic tribal politics and democratic ideals. But none can match the page-turning melodrama of Deborah Scroggins' dazzling biography of Emma McCune, a gorgeous English aid worker who became the second wife of a Sudanese warlord and helped tear southern Sudan apart even as she risked her life to save it.
Though her story is a kind of modern "Heart of Darkness," Emma, who died at 29 in a car accident, is a character too grandiose for most novelists to pull off -- a beautiful, brave, foolish woman who throws herself into a vicious war, crossing the line separating charitable Westerners from the objects of their charity. She's a person at once boundlessly generous and dangerously self-absorbed.
Scroggins describes Emma in London after her marriage: "She made a dramatic entrance at one party wearing a dress by the designer Ghost that must have cost several hundred pounds. 'Who is that stunning woman in black?' the guests were asking.
She relished answering that she was the wife of an African guerrilla chief." Emma was entrenched in the agony of Sudan as no other Westerner was, but almost until the end of her life, one senses it remained a romantic adventure to her. She shows both intense caring and adrenaline-junkie callousness, a duality that seems to affect many Western forays into war zones.
The book comes at a time when many of the issues it raises are being fiercely debated. Our administration seems full of sunny certainty that it will bring democracy to Iraq, a country riven by sectarian hatreds. That view is abetted by exiles who tell our leaders precisely what they want to hear. Thus, Emma's husband, Riek Machar, serves as a cautionary example.
As Scroggins writes, local people called Riek "the Bill Clinton of Sudan." He's charismatic, Western-educated and conversant in the rhetoric of human rights and democracy. Initially, he fights the Muslim fundamentalist government in the North, which is supported by Osama bin Laden and his ilk, and which is determined -- with the help of foreign energy companies -- to exploit the oil reserves in the South. Yet, while Emma is determined to see Riek as a Western-style hero, he eventually starts a vicious tribal war within the South, manipulating starving refugees to garner international aid that benefits his struggle.
Meanwhile, the moral complexities of the aid industry itself have been thrown into high relief by David Rieff's recent "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis." In that book, Rieff shows how relief workers can augment crises -- for example, by working in refugee camps that double as sanctuaries for militias. Writing about aid workers, Rieff asked, "Are they serving as logicians or medics for some warlord's war effort (as they probably are in the Sudan)? Are they creating a culture of dependency among their beneficiaries? And are they being used politically by virtue of the way government donors and U.N. agencies give them funds and direct them toward certain places while making it difficult for them to go to others?"
"Emma's War" doesn't offer a single answer to such questions, but it illuminates them and renders them immediate, showing the way war can twist an outsider's blazing idealism into something sinister.
Emma begins as an intrepid, passionate girl in love with Africa. She moves there in 1989, when she's 25. The most daring in a circle of young expats who pride themselves on their fearlessness, she lands a job with Street Kids International, a charity devoted to starting schools in war- and famine-ravaged Southern Sudan. It's important work. The Christian and pagan Sudanese are desperate for education, realizing it's one of the main advantages the Arabized North has over them. Thus, many parents were sending their children to Ethiopian refugee camps, hoping they'd go to school while being trained as rebel soldiers. For Emma, local schools were a way to keep children out of war.
When she realizes that her Land Cruiser can't reach many of the villages she wants to help, she sets off through the bush on foot. "Emma's willingness to get out and walk from village to village won her respect from the southern Sudanese," Scroggins writes. "They called Emma 'the Tall Woman from Small Britain.' She was such a novelty that they drew pictures of her in her miniskirt on the walls of their wattle-and-daub tukuls."
It's through her work with Street Kids International that Emma meets rebel commander Riek Machar. The southern rebel army SPLA had blocked her efforts to expand her schools into Riek's district because, she believed, they'd interfere with the rebels' campaign to recruit child soldiers. With characteristic audacity, she decides to confront Riek herself, traveling to a relief conference he was attending in Nairobi, Kenya.
Charmed, he agrees to her request with startling rapidity. "Emma was bowled over," Scroggins writes. "This tall man with the soft voice shared her dreams for the children of southern Sudan ... He trusted her so much that he was going to investigate her reports that the boys were being trained for the rebel army!" According to Emma's mother, they slept together that night.
Emma moves Street Kids International's office to Nasir, Riek's headquarters. Here what was formerly an affectionate portrait of Emma begins to turn ugly. Nasir was being besieged by hungry refugees. Scroggins writes, "Thousands of refugees squatted along the muddy banks of the river, waiting for food. The dead bodies and the raw sewage from the refugees had contaminated the Sobat [river]. After drinking from it, people started coming down with a deadly variety of diarrhea. Torrents of rain poured over them as they lay in their own excrement ... In the midst of this chaos, Emma floated around in long skirts and Wellington boots, looking mysteriously happy."
At the same time, Emma's doctor friend, Bernadette Kumar, perhaps the one real hero in the book, is working furiously to keep up with the mounting calamities when Emma calls her away. Believing she must be sick, Bernadette hurries over, and is stunned when Emma gushes, "I'm in love, and I've made up my mind. I'm going to get married -- here in Nasir! And I want you to be my bridesmaid."
This moment comes more than halfway through the book, but it serves to bifurcate it, marking the moment at which Emma plunges into a moral limbo. Her solipsism seems almost demented, and it gets worse as the crisis progresses. After all, Riek's men weren't exactly on the same side as the aid workers. They stole much of the food for themselves, and kept a group of children, the so-called Lost Boys, half-starved in order to use them to extract more supplies from the foreigners.
Scroggins sums up the same kind of ethical swamp that Rieff wrote about: "When you see starving Rwandans or Somalis or Bosnians staring out of your television screens with solemn dignity, you get the idea that such places must be like mass hospitals in the dust. You think they must be entirely populated by emaciated children lining up for food handed out by heroic aid workers. Television leaves out the manic excitement of the camps. Power is naked in such places. It comes down to who has food and who doesn't. The aid workers try to cover it up, to make the men with guns at least pretend to deny themselves in favor of the children and the women. The men play along for a while, but then the mask falls away. The strong always eat first ... and very soon some of the aid workers began to wonder where Emma stood -- on the side of the refugees or with Riek."
The answer quickly becomes clear, especially once Riek attempts to overthrow SPLA leader John Garang. Garang was murderous and tyrannical, and his refusal to settle for a free South instead of a democratic, united Sudan seemed to auger war without end. When Riek tries to supplant him, he does so in the name of values that the aid workers espouse, and they're initially enthusiastic.
But in order to garner support against Garang, Riek falls back on exactly the kind of tribal politics he claims to abhor. Garang is a Dinka, while Riek is a Nuer. The two groups had fought together against the North, but after Riek's split with Garang, they start slaughtering each other in what comes to be known as "Emma's War." The battle scenes are horrifying. "Riek used all the symbols of the Nuer religion and tradition to rally his people to his side," Scroggins writes. "The Nuer ... wore white ashes on their bodies and the white sheets over their shoulders that were supposed to protect them from bullets ... They made a terrifying sight as they marched, chanting war verses about their ferocity. They drove Garang's men all the way back to their leader's hometown of Bor. Then the killing really started."
The scene of the massacre resembles a Bosch painting. An aid worker describes it, "The whole air stank ... And just everywhere were dead cows, dead people, people hanging upside down in trees." Observers, Scroggins says, "saw three children tied together with their heads smashed in. They saw disemboweled women ... They had to cover their faces to breathe inside the hospital where Bernadette Kumar had once operated." Emma refuses to admit the reality of the massacre to herself, much less to her friends, further alienating her from Africa's relief workers.
Needing support, Riek makes a covert alliance with the Northern government, the very opponent he'd valiantly fought against -- and that government, wanting to divide the rebels and protect the oil fields in Nuer territory, is happy to supply him with weapons. Taking advantage of the South's internecine fighting, the North regains much of the territory it lost to the SPLA. Oil concessions are sold. The fighting continues today.
Ultimately, Emma resembles a Graham Greene character even more than a Joseph Conrad one -- she's like Alden Pyle in "The Quiet American," sure she can save a country she doesn't quite understand with her own love and righteousness. Indeed, the love between her and Riek seems genuine, which is why it's heartbreaking that the same love was so corrupting. In the end, like Greene's fictions, Emma's life leaves one with the sense that naiveté can be far more deadly than cynicism.
About the writer
Michelle Goldberg is a staff writer for Salon based in New York.
A good woman in Africa
Emma's War, by Deborah Scroggins, follows a Westerner who travelled to the Sudan, married a warlord - and changed nothing, says Geraldine Bedell
Sunday March 9, 2003
by Deborah Scroggins
HarperCollins £17.99, pp220
Emma McCune was a beautiful young Englishwoman who conceived a romantic passion for Africa, went to the Sudan to be an aid worker and ended up marrying a warlord. Her story is extraordinary, but also quite thin. Emma didn't change anything. She become embroiled in the politics of southern Sudan, but made no difference, averting her eyes from things she didn't want to see. She was infuriating, in the way that headstrong, very attractive young women can be.
Deborah Scroggins would be the first to acknowledge that Emma was less significant than she liked to think. (She was given to signing herself First Lady-in-waiting, a reference to her expectation of becoming the wife of the President of a seceded southern Sudan). Scroggins, an American journalist, was responsible in her early career for alerting the world to the Sudanese famine of 1988, in which 250,000 people died, and which, as she notes bleakly, not many people remember any more.
She has an impressive grasp of the brutal complexities of politics in the Horn of Africa, and what she has done in this book, very cleverly, is to weave the short story of Emma's life into the vast, horrific story of the Sudan. Her book is a timely reminder that the history of this distant and untamed place has dire repercussions for us all: Osama bin Laden was in the country at the same time as Emma, supporting the Islamic government whose rule Emma's husband was resisting.
If Scroggins has a theme, it is that the desire to do good in Africa has repeatedly tripped up Europeans and, latterly, Americans. Emma McCune went out to the Sudan as a missionary for the Western gospel of human rights, rather as General Gordon went to abolish slavery. The slavery continued after Gordon's death, and civil war and starvation continued after Emma's. Modern aid workers find it necessary, as Gordon did, to do business with the warlords and find themselves sucked into the maw of civil war, implicated in atrocities.
Africa consumes them, just as it consumed the US marines who tried to intervene in neighbouring Somalia in 1993, when bin Laden-trained guerrillas killed 18 Americans (in the incident that became the subject of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down). The marines pulled out after that; Scroggins notes quietly that 'we like our heroism on the cheap'.
Emma McCune was born in India in 1964, the child of colonial parents born after the closing days of Empire. Her father lost his job to a local man, and the family moved to Yorkshire and a life to which he, at least, was singularly unsuited. He started an affair, embezzled funds from the local Conservative Association and, ultimately, committed suicide. The McCunes moved from a Queen Anne hall to a council house and dreamt of how happy they had been far away from England.
It was at Oxford, where Emma was studying art and history at the polytechnic, that she first met young, idealistic Sudanese students and refugee officials. She slept with a bewildering array of them, both in Britain and in Africa, and started hanging around with academics and aid workers who were experts in the region. Eventually, she found her way out to Sudan and a job with Street Kids International, setting up schools.
Scroggins, on the one occasion the two women met, remembers being shocked by the fact that, unlike the other aid workers and journalists, who wore modest T-shirts and khaki shorts in an attempt to make themselves less visible and sexy, Emma splashed about in a bright miniskirt. But in other respects, she was typical: most of the work in Africa is done by romantics, by aid workers hired, in Scroggins's view, less for their knowledge of the continent than their familiarity with Western notions of what it needed - concepts such as women's rights and 'grassroots development'. Their motives, like anyone's, were muddled: 'In truth, the average aid worker or journalist lived for the buzz, the intensity of life in the war zone, the heightened sensations brought on by the nearness of death and the determination to do good.'
Emma probably never really understood the crisscrossing currents of Sudanese politics. There was the northern government versus the southern rebels, the Muslims versus the Christians and pagans, the 100 ethnic groups with their clan and tribal subdivisions, the linguistic conflicts, the colonial and racial differences (Arabs versus the rest). And there was oil in the South, which the northern government wanted to get its hands on, and Sharia law, which the North was under pressure from its backers (including bin Laden) to impose on the entire country.
Riek Machar, the man Emma married, was a deputy commander of the southern rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Army. He had a PhD from Bradford Polytechnic and was already married to a Nuer woman who lived in England with their three children. But the attraction to Emma was immediate, mutual and overwhelming; they began living together. Within months, they were married.
Emma was a natural partisan, an instinctive campaigner, with an added Western idealism that Scroggins considers to have been out of place in Africa. Once married to Riek, she took on his struggle as her own. After he launched an internal rebellion against the leader of the SPLA, there were atrocities on both sides: massacres, thefts of food, and children deliberately kept hungry to pressurise the UN to send more aid, much of which ended up in the hands of soldiers. Children were frequently sold (or captured) into effective slavery as trainee soldiers.
Emma's friends in the aid community could never be sure how much she knew - she always defended Riek and argued that mistakes were not his - but her closeness to the fighters left them uncomfortable.
Emma died in a car accident in Nairobi in 1993. Although she had received death threats, it seems unlikely she was murdered. She was 29, and five months pregnant. An obituary in the Times referred to her as an aid worker, though she hadn't been an aid worker for two years: the error, Scroggins says angrily, was 'another example of the West's inexcusable narcissism: the lazy refusal to see beyond our salvation fantasies'.
Scroggins has written a wonderful book, driven at bottom by her own passionate disappointment; she speaks at one point of 'people like me, people who went there dreaming they might help, and came back numb with disillusionment'. Emma's War is a gripping history of the Sudan, which doesn't shirk the country's complexities and which integrates into its cruel history the saga of Western efforts to help and interfere.
But she leaves us with an
unresolved dilemma. Are we supposed to watch people go hungry? Give up hope for
the starving? How can we not empathise? We are part of their world. Their
violent deaths and starvation are barely imaginable to us, but we are partly
responsible. The consequences of our interventions are still unspooling. We are
linked to the peoples of the Sudan whether we like it or not, and we have to
pray that their tribal violence does not catch up with us.
BOOK REVIEW: Story of aid worker lends insight to Africa
CLAY EVANS, Daily Camera of Boulder, Co.
Published 11:54 a.m. PST Wednesday, January 22, 2003
(SH) - How many Americans can point to Sudan on a map? How many are aware that it is the largest nation in Africa, covering almost 1 million square miles? What people live there?
If you can't answer such questions, you are not alone. But if you read Atlanta-based journalist Deborah Scroggins' deeply researched new book, "Emma's War," you'll come away with answers - and very likely more questions and a sense of palpable tragedy.
Sudan actually has been a blip on the American media radar in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: Aren't there radical Arabic Muslims in the country's north raiding, pillaging, murdering and slave-taking among the mostly African pagan-Christian south? Yes. But that doesn't begin to tell Sudan's depressing story.
Scroggins tells us much more, using a fascinating focal point around which to weave a tale of Western aid and arrogance, Islamic radicalism, deeply entrenched tribal bad blood, and always in the background, the Western lust for oil.
The Emma of the book's title, Emma McCune, was a bright, pretty and rebellious British expatriate who first fell in love with the brutal and lovely Sudan while serving as an idealistic foreign aid worker. In her heart, she considered herself Sudanese, but eventually, her marriage to a powerful, charming southern warlord blinded her to the very kind of atrocities she had once hoped to prevent.
Scroggins, who was working for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when she first began reporting from the Horn of Africa, is an able guide through its late colonial history, the endless struggles between the Arab north and African south, and all the while, the machinations and chess-playing by international oil concerns, from Chevron to the Saudis.
Her time on the ground, especially in the late 1980s and later, the Clinton era, when American forces were supposed to be helping a humanitarian mission in neighboring Somalia (the failure of which caused Osama bin Laden to pronounce that "Americans are cowards") gives the reader a window seat into a world of almost ceaseless tragedy and struggle. Bin Laden's al-Qaida found its cradle in Sudan.
Early on, Scroggins visited a huge refugee camp outside the capital Khartoum, called Hillat Shook. Part of her description gives a flavor for the situation at the time:
"Outside the hut a woman appeared to be cooking something over a burning tire. Despite the awful smell and industrial debris, the scene was recognizably African. To my citified mind, it looked as if an avant-garde artist had been given the task of creating an African village out of toxic waste materials."
While it's true that the fundamental conflict in Sudan then and today was between the Muslim north and pagan/Christian south, Scroggins and fellow journalists witnessed the brutalities of internecine "brush" warfare between southern tribes, particularly the Nuer and the Dinka. Whole villages were laid to waste, their inhabitants mutilated, cattle (the Dinka sign of wealth) stabbed in the eyes and left to die, children kidnapped and taken to camps to be trained as soldiers.
Amid all this, Emma McCune, who had begun as a vociferous advocate for children, lost sight of her idealism when she impulsively married Riek Machar of the Sudan People's Liberation Army. She angrily justified slaughter by her husband's soldiers when they were battling another warlord, John Garang (who was supported by the United States), and tittered charmingly as she dined on fish stolen from weaker tribes' nets.
Scroggins' book is enormous and complex, peering down dark alleyways to find few innocents in Sudan's struggles. Religion, whether Christian or Muslim, becomes justification for unimaginable horrors (an estimated two million people have died in the country's 14-year civil war), but always in the background was the desire to control southern oilfields.
Emma died with a whimper, killed in a car crash. And even though fighters opposed to Riek derisively called their battle "Emma's War," she was just a bit player. Ultimately, Scroggins finds sympathy for her tragic subject: "She had beauty, passion, a radiant spirit. She wanted to help. Yes, she was up to her neck in horrors. But the horrors almost certainly would have happened without her."
Emma's War: An Aid Worker, A Warlord, Radical Islam, and the Politics of Oil - A True Story of Love and Death in Sudan by Deborah Scroggins. Pantheon, 389 pp. $25
Special to The Times
January 7 2003
"When you see the starving Rwandans or Somalis or Bosnians staring out of your television screens with solemn dignity, you get the idea that such places must ... be entirely populated by emaciated children lining up for food handed out by heroic aid workers," writes journalist Deborah Scroggins in "Emma's War," a compelling and disturbing book about the troubles plaguing Sudan (and many other African nations), and the role she believes Western intervention has played in perpetuating them.
Those images, she tells us, fail to show the "manic excitement" of the camps, where those with power, whether through money or guns, are the ones who reap the benefits. "The aid workers try to cover it up ... but then the mask falls away. The strong always eat first. Then the question for the aid workers is: Are we doing more harm by feeding the men with the guns than we would by letting everyone else starve?" This inquiry forms the heart of her book, which shows how religion, politics and greed influence the starvation, slavery and abject poverty in Sudan -- "potentially one of the richer pieces of real estate in the world, with ... crude oil reserves of 262 million barrels."
Scroggins artfully arranges these aspects around two key stories. The primary tale, set in the late 1980s and early '90s, tells of Emma McCune, a charismatic and romantic British aid worker. " 'In my heart, I'm Sudanese,' " McCune says of her fascination with the people and the country. Arranging education for children, she falls in love with Riek Machar, a leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA. Machar is a key player in the civil war that has all but destroyed the country. (The longest-running civil war in Africa, the conflict has racked up an estimated 2 million deaths since 1983.) Pitting factions of the Christian and pagan south (including the SPLA) against the northern Islamic government (not coincidentally backed by Osama bin Laden, who, until six years ago, lived there), the war seems to have oil rights at its core.
By becoming the warlord's wife and taking up his fight, McCune blurs the supposed delineation between the neutral assistance offered by the aid community and outright support for one faction. In her drive to improve the life of the people she's come to love, she blinds herself to the harm done by her husband's activities (she denies the existence of a massacre in which Machar played a leading role) while she shapes the reality of the situation around her to suit her idealized self-image. To fellow aid workers, McCune becomes "a symbol of how a relief organization meant to be neutral had become part of the machinery of the civil war." To Scroggins, McCune is emblematic of the misplaced goodwill that constitutes much of the West's humanitarian efforts.
Woven throughout are Scroggins' own experiences covering Sudan for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, witnessing cases of child slavery and overwhelming starvation. This personal narrative balances the account, showing how heart-wrenchingly difficult situations like Sudan are. After seeing starving conscripted child-soldiers tended by well-fed warlords, she asks whether, by considering children innocents and more deserving of food than adults, the U.N. inadvertently encourages groups like the SPLA to starve children in hopes of receiving more aid.
We in the West, Scroggins suggests, like to see ourselves as gallant saviors, bringing redemption to those in need. When our efforts fail to fix the problems, though, we're just as happy to change the television station.
Scroggins detects some of the roots of the rage that fueled the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks as she considers the U.S. intervention in Somalia and other countries on the Horn of Africa a decade ago. On Sept. 11, she writes, "Osama bin Laden's followers smashed the smug conviction that it is up to us to choose whether to tend to the world's festering sores or to turn our backs on them." Western intervention, "carelessly entered and even more carelessly exited," she argues, has "borne evil fruit."
As we read headlines of threatened war in Iraq, this book, with its incisive examination of the West's intervention in Third World counties and its resonating effects on the web of humankind, should be required reading.
09 March 2003
Books: More than a woman
Emma's war: Love,
betrayal and death in the Sudan by Deborah Scroggins (Harpercollins, £17.99)
Reviewed by Lesley McDowell
THIS remarkable book by American journalist Deborah Scroggins is a rare beast -- the life story of an individual and the history of a nation that conveys the intimacy of the former and the scope of the latter. A moving, enlightening, entrancing account of British woman Emma McCune -- who attained brief notoriety in the early 1990s for her marriage to a Sudanese warlord, Riek Machar, before she died, at the age of 29, in a car accident -- Scroggins's work promises a great deal and delivers on every count.
Emma McCune was born in India in 1964, in the fast-fading shadows of the British Empire. Her parents had met there while her father Julian (or 'Bunny') was working as an engineer and the colonial structure was still in place, granting ex-pats comfortable bungalows, Indian servants and nannies . By the time Emma was born, much of this free and easy lifestyle had been dismantled, and Bunny McCune was sent back to England, where he settled in Yorkshire, home of his family, took to drink and womanising and finally killed himself.
Scroggins makes clear the link between Emma McCune's fascination with Africa, another great colonial outpost, and her parental history. Both had a kind of tarnished glamour for her. Coupled with the hugely influential Band Aid campaign of the mid-1980s, which had large numbers of idealistic, middle-class British youngsters heading for African trouble spots (and often, Scroggins implies, just making matters worse while they found themselves a mission in life), it made Sudan hard for McCune to resist. Flirting with the possibility of travelling to Khartoum as a British aid worker while at college, she was finally persuaded after falling in love with a fellow student, Sudanese intellectual Ahmed Karadawi.
This brief affair was the start of many flings with married African men that McCune conducted before she finally met Riek Machar, the Sudanese warlord who started out supporting John Garang, leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), before fighting him for control. McCune met Riek while campaigning for kidnapped Sudanese children, whom she maintained Garang took to train in his soldier camps. Riek promised to help her -- and so began a relationship that would end in marriage, pregnancy and death.
Scroggins is at pains to emphasise that McCune's story is not simply the tale of a rather lost, romantic, middle-class English girl who finds herself living a post-colonial dream . She needs to take such pains -- McCune does not come across very well, with little understanding of Sudan and its historical relationship with Britain. In one instance we see her in a red mini-dress over a pair of flares, attending an outdoor re-enactment of the killing of General George Gordon, while keeping vodka and copies of Vogue with her in the midst of the most horrifying of famines. In another, 'to her mother, she wrote rapturously of the Sudanese men in their loose white turbans and long flowing gowns and of the hot breeze that in Khartoum smelled of exotic spices'. Ignorant, vain, impulsive, naive, generous, attractive, larger-than-life -- these are fair descriptions of her. But are they enough to justify centering a book on her?
The answer lies in the metaphor Scroggins uses at the beginning of her tale. Africa, she explains, is a continent in which Britain likes to see itself reflected at its best: philanthropic, encouraging, helpful, enlightening. It is a romantic reflection; one McCune personalises to its greatest extent. The fact that while she was gaily skipping round feeding centres and war-torn villages, Western capitalism was dirtying that reflection with rounds of dodgy deals with the factions that make up the crazy political map of Sudan, is something Scroggins exposes.
But McCune is not quite grand enough to contain all that Sudan and its problems convey. And it is, of course, ironic that British and US readers should learn about this vast country and its history through the figure of a flawed British woman rather than any Sudanese figures themselves. Scroggins acknowledges that calling the conflagration of conflicts and massacres in recent Sudanese history Emma's War is a contentious one. It is, alas, perhaps the easiest way of getting us in the West to pay attention.
Civil war in
From The Economist print edition
Emma's War: An Aid Worker, a
Warlord, Radical Islam, and the Politics of Oil—A True Story of Love and Death
in Sudan, by
Pantheon; 389 pages; $25. To be published in Britain by HarperCollins in March 2003
EMMA McCUNE was an idealistic young British aid worker who spent much of the late 1980s criss-crossing southern Sudan, then as now in the grip of civil war, dressed in a red mini-skirt. Handing out charity pencils, books and blackboards to outdoor schools financed by a high-minded Canadian lawyer, she cut a striking figure.
What really made McCune's name, though, was her marriage in 1991 to a southern Sudanese warlord, Riek Machar. McCune saw the marriage as a way of breaching the gap between white and black. But to her fellow aid workers, it seemed that she had crossed an invisible, and not altogether happy, line. When the Khartoum government began bombing Sudanese refugees who were fleeing back into the country from Ethiopia, the peaceable aid worker threw herself into Mr Machar's violent quest to take over southern Sudan's rebel movement. In thrall to the man, she paid little attention to the murder and kidnapping that was part of his quest for power. Two years later, McCune was dead, crushed by an itinerant bush taxi near Nairobi. She was 29 and pregnant.
Deborah Scroggins uses the romantic aspects of this beautiful white woman's story to draw in unsuspecting readers. But she has a sharp eye, and her real aim is to tease out the inconsistencies of Emma McCune's brutally short life as a way of looking at how foreigners through the ages have involved themselves in Sudan.
The humanitarians of the 19th century, many of whom were driven by urges half-hidden even from themselves, have given way to modern famine-relief programmes. The donors who fund them like the idea of giving pencils to small black children. However, they averted their eyes when the hand-made sweaters donated by American knitting circles in the late 1980s proved too warm for the Sudanese (they ended up being worn as decorative hats) and when American food aid was used by the southern Sudanese rebel movement, the SPLA, to maintain scores of camps where kidnapped children were trained to fire guns. They looked away too whenever the Khartoum government felt that foreign aid was making southern leaders like Riek Machar too powerful, and retaliated by bombing feeding stations full of women and their stick-thin children.
American oil companies pay the northern Islamic government to try and gain access to the untapped oilfields that lie in the south of the country. So far, the violence has stopped Chevron and others from getting very far. At the same time, Christian groups in America pour money into financing the southerners against the Muslim north. They believe they are helping to establish a vanguard against the spread of Islam, but what they are really doing is fuelling the civil war. “Emma's War” is about the politics of the belly, and what happens when the fat white paunch meets the swollen stomachs of the hungry in Africa. It is a sorry story, but Ms Scroggins tells it awfully well.
GENOCIDE: Sudan Found
By Nat Hentoff
The Village Voice | November 6, 2002
The acts of the Government of Sudan . . . constitute genocide as defined by the [United Nations] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). —Sudan Peace Act, signed by the president of the United States, October 21, 2002
Since 1983, over 2 million black, non-Muslim civilians have died during the civil war in Sudan. Blacks in the south of the country have been fighting for self-determination and to end the enslavement of women and children, ethnic cleansing, aerial bombardment of schools and churches, and the creation of famine conditions—all of this by the National Islamic Front government of the north.
Much of the world, including the United States, has all along largely ignored what The Washington Post, in a September 9 editorial, called "possibly the greatest humanitarian disaster on Earth." But that newspaper and The New York Times, among other dailies and weeklies, have only glancingly covered the disaster, and often with false information.
In his review of the book Emma's War in the October 20 New York Times, George Packer; note author’s name is not given; it’s “Deborah Scroggins”-ap got to the essence of continual media indifference to the horrors of the National Islamic Front "jihad" against the blacks in the south: "The deaths of 10,000 southern Sudanese by slaughter or 100,000 by starvation can occur with hardly a mention in American newspapers." The other constant murders and gang rapes by the northern militias have also slipped by the media.
Until mid-October, I was convinced that only mass demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience here, the kind that hastened the end of apartheid in South Africa, could move the White House and Congress to do something—not in rhetoric but in law, with sanctions—to end the ceaseless state terrorism in Sudan. However, an extraordinary historic coalition of abolitionists has in recent years put such unremitting pressure on Bush and Congress that at last, on October 9, a unanimous Senate passed the Sudan Peace Act. It had already been approved in the House on October 7 by a vote of 359 to 8.
Among those in the coalition are black churches around the country, white evangelicals, the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Group, the Congressional Black Caucus, Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, civil rights leaders such as Joe Madison and Walter Fauntroy, conservatives led by Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, Jewish organizations, and others. Missing all these years were nearly all of the Democratic leadership in Congress, most editorial writers and columnists, and, with few exceptions, American broadcast and cable television. Next week: the details of the Sudan Peace Act, including sanctions for noncompliance with the law. Also, why this is an important beginning of the end for these atrocities; but also why continuous pressure on the White House and Congress—and Khartoum—will be essential. Keep in mind, however, that with the United States having found Khartoum guilty of actual genocide, a heavy obligation now falls on the White House and Congress to follow through.
Article One of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states clearly: "The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish." (Emphasis added. We have now contracted to do that.
Should the slave raids, the ethnic cleansing, and the gang rapes continue, the leaders of the government of Sudan could be brought before the International War Crimes Tribunal. However, all the abolitionists in the American coalition will have to ensure that Congress and the White House bring those indictments, if necessary, before the War Crimes Tribunal.
Meanwhile, from Christian Solidarity International—which, with the American Anti-Slavery Group, has redeemed thousands of slaves—there is this report from Khartoum after the passage of the Sudan Peace Act:
"The National Assembly in Khartoum urged Arabs and Muslims throughout the world to denounce the law, calling it 'a breach of Sudan's sovereignty' . . . The Sudanese chargé d'affaires in Washington, Dr. Harun Khidir, blamed 'members of the extremist Christian right groups and a group of the black masses' for pushing the Sudan Peace Act through Congress. . . .
"Following congressional approval of the legislation, Islamist officials organized a mass demonstration in Khartoum in support of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, during which an effigy of President Bush, wrapped in American and Israeli flags and labeled 'the corpse of imperialism,' was torn to shreds and burnt." (The latter story was reported by Agence France-Presse on October 16).
Colin Powell might have been added to the bonfire had the slavemasters known—as I have found out—that Powell, behind the scenes, was an important factor in getting the Bush administration to finally move on abolishing slavery in Sudan. Powell is the man Harry Belafonte calls "a house slave." In all the years I've been involved in this story, I do not recall Belafonte being an active, persistent member of the New Abolitionists working to liberate the blacks of Sudan—although he has been prominent in other human rights causes. Powell has been significantly involved in the anti-slavery movement.
Actually, when I started writing about the slaves of Sudan in the Voice about six years ago, the beginning of the New Abolitionist movement was driven by the American Anti-Slavery Group, headed by Charles Jacobs, who first told me of the horrors in Sudan.
There was also a young graduate student at Columbia University, Sam Cotton, who traveled to black churches and newspapers around the country to spread the liberating word. In Denver, Barbara Vogel told her fifth-grade class that slavery was not dead, and those kids began collecting money to free slaves in Sudan through Christian Solidarity International. Other schoolchildren around the country joined in.
Eric Reeves took two years off from teaching Shakespeare and Milton at Smith College to focus invaluably on research and advocacy, including testimony before Congress on the National Islamic Front's barbarity in Sudan. Donald Payne led the Congressional Black Caucus's involvement, with the later help of Eleanor Holmes-Norton. Instrumental members of the House included Frank Wolf, Spencer Bachus, and Tom Trancedo.
There were many more. "And," John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International told me on the day Bush signed the Sudan Peace Act, "don't forget all the anonymous people who signed pledge cards, contributed money, and prayed for the freedom of the slaves. We'll never know who they were, but the Sudan Peace Act couldn't have happened without them."
Justin Marozzi reviews Emma's War: Love, Betrayal and Death in the Sudan by Deborah Scroggins
The one person who would have been particularly delighted by Deborah's Scroggins's Emma's War, I suspect, was the flamboyant young woman who is its subject.
Emma McCune was many things - aid worker, adventuress, Sudanese warlord's wife, drama queen - but a writer she was most certainly not. Although she saw her life as compellingly interesting, the writer-friends she approached for help when she attempted to write her autobiography did not. The pages she showed them were trite and sentimental and as for the subject herself: "There isn't anything there but a black man boffing a white woman," one friend remarked, to her great irritation. A rather mean verdict, perhaps, but not entirely wide of the mark.
There is no need to question the purity of McCune's motives for choosing to make her life in war-torn southern Sudan. Like so many of what Deborah Scroggins calls the "humanitarian tribe" of aid workers, journalists, and other thrill-seekers and hangers-on, she was carried along by both a taste for adventure and an idealist's faith in "doing good" in that benighted continent. Whether one outweighed the other is immaterial. There is no crime in not wanting to marry a stockbroker and live in suburbia.
What is more interesting is the process by which the young Englishwoman evolved from high-minded educational aid worker distributing pencils and blackboards to fledgling schools in the bush, to wife of the guerrilla warlord Riek Machar - and blind to the atrocities her idealised husband and his soldiers in the Sudan People's Liberation Army committed.
A sexual frisson had accompanied her first meeting - to discuss educational needs in SPLA territory - with the charismatic leader. His penis ultimately proved more compelling than her pencils - white men's genitals she dismissed as "slugs". The boyfriend she had persuaded to make the arduous drive to Machar's camp was summarily dismissed. After a last tangle with him under the stars, she told him she loved another man.
McCune's transformation understandably irked her former colleagues in the aid sector and, more seriously, undermined relief operations in southern Sudan, especially when she took to broadcasting rebel statements on United Nations radio. Besides, as Scroggins acknowledges, it was ludicrous for a junior relief worker to call for a "political solution" to the interminable conflict during her urgent broadcasts in the field.
Although there is a nagging suspicion that the marriage to a warlord was always something of an exercise in one-upmanship in the unconventionality stakes, one should not be too harsh on McCune. Her compassion for the poor, weak and dying around her was undoubtedly genuine and for the short time she lived in Sudan she was a popular figure.
It may be that when she crossed the line from relief worker to partisan rebel commander's wife she was leaving the hypocrisies of the aid sector behind her, but if that were the case they were quickly replaced by the cy nicism of war and killing. Her own end was arbitrary and abrupt: she was killed in a road accident when she was 29.
Although this book is probably twice as long as it should be, Scroggins is to be congratulated for making the story of Emma McCune's ill-fated foray into Africa such a good read. The Englishwoman has been given a posthumous importance her short life barely deserved. A mooted Hollywood blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman will only add to the fame. Not bad for someone who, in the words of the veteran African correspondent Sam Kiley, was simply "a beautiful and intelligent English chick who was living out a middle-class fantasy".
Justin Marozzi's 'South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara', is published in paperback by HarperCollins.
Reviewed by Sam Kiley,
Evening Standard (3 March 2003)
Emma's War: Love, Betrayal and Death in the Sudan
by Deborah Scroggins
Publisher: HarperCollins (£17.99)
It is often said that Africa is a poison. One visit to this continent, its vastnesses, savannahs, jungles, swamps and exotic peoples will provoke a lifelong infection, impossible to shake. Southern Sudan, for some, is Africa's most seductive landscape. Westerners who encounter the swamps of the Sud leave entirely changed, often warped, by the experience.
None more so than Emma McCune, the daughter of a tea-planter who had failed to cope with a return to Britain; as the sun set on the empire, he collapsed into alcohol, infidelity, penury and suicide. He left his redoubtable wife, Maggie, to bring up Emma and her two siblings in nouveau pauvre gentility.
But Emma was different. She was staggeringly beautiful. The outfits she improvised and draped over her leggy frame ensured she was the Cinderella at the country balls she swept through during her teens.
Social but not silly, Emma knew she was destined for far more interesting things. By the time she found herself at Oxford Polytechnic and fell under the spell of the legendary Willy Knocker, a white Kenyan intellectual bushwhacker, anthropologist polyglot, she knew her destiny lay in Africa.
She was armed with charm, charisma, and what later emerged as a ruthless ability to manipulate her friends. She had none of the skills that could make her of any use to the aid community in Africa; none the less, she managed to wangle a job setting up schools for thousands of southern Sudanese children dispossessed by the long-running civil war with the Arab-dominated government of the north.
Emma cut a Merchant-Ivory figure. Refusing to adopt the sanctimonious sackcloth gear of the modern aid worker, she swept through Sudanese villages of almost naked Dinka and Nuer tribespeople, decked out in floppy hats and diaphanous dresses.
She cast herself as the romantic lead in her own movie. It began well.
Much to everyone's surprise, she was a brilliant educational fieldworker, setting up schools where none had been contemplated for decades and feeding the southern Sudanese hunger for learning.
Soon, she was in love. Not for Emma the ordinary entanglements with fellow aid workers and sweaty evenings beneath canvas. She fell for "Commander" Riek Machar, a smooth-talking, gap-toothed, southern rebel warlord with a PhD from a British university, and a magnetic personality.
Tragically blinded by love, and by her new role as a sort of Queen of Nasir (his base on the Sobat River), she could not see that, despite his many charms, Machar was, like so many rebel leaders in Africa, a vainglorious, homicidal, doubledealing fool.
Soon after their marriage, Riek split with the equally ghastly John Garang, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, ostensibly over Garang's appalling human-rights record. Within weeks, a tribal conflict, which Garang's supporters called "Emma's War", plunged a region twice the size of Texas into internecine slaughter and famine. By the time Riek's Nuer forces had massacred thousands in the remote town of Bor, Emma had become his chief apologist, public relations adviser and confidante. Some of us who considered her a friend were enraged by her blunt refusal to acknowledge Riek's atrocities. Or his connivance with his "official" enemies in Arab-dominated Khartoum against fellow southerners - and his cynical manipulation of starving masses in pursuit of international sympathy, and funds for his bloodletting. We had to agree never to discuss the Sudan with Emma. Deborah-Scroggins, a regular visitor to the region for her Atlanta newspaper, stuck with Emma's story to the end - which came in a car crash in Nairobi.
Her biography of McCune is a painstaking and loving portrait of this remarkable woman, who should have been born more than 100 years ago, when she could have been an imperial heroine. Scroggins also exposes the vanity that provokes so many of us to set forth into Africa's killing fields and famine camps, ostensibly in the name of "doing good", while we peer into the belly of the beast, shudder with a nervous giggle and retreat to safe luxury.
Scroggins reveals that Emma, at least, was different: she gave Africa her all.
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