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Dying in the crash was a great irony

Saturday August 6 2005


The death of Dr John Garang would have made more sense had it been caused by an assassin’s bullet. At least, that is what most people around the world, and more so in Southern Sudan, say.

Perhaps it would have come as no surprise had he been killed by one of his colleagues in the bush during the guerrilla war against the North. After all, there were many splinter groups within the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).

Dr John Garang (right) converses with Mr Dan

Dr John Garang (right) converses with Mr Dan Eiffe in Nairobi in this file photo. The body of the former rebel leader was found on Monday, his helicopter having crashed two days earlier.
But he made it through, even surviving several attempts on his life only for him to die in an accident barely three weeks after seeing his dream come true.

And that was the great irony for the man who seemed larger than life to most people who knew him.

It was as if Mr Nelson Mandela had been killed in an accident only a few kilometres from Robben Island on the day he was released from prison after 27 years, said Mr Dan Eiffe, publisher of the Sudan Mirror, a weekly newspaper, and the director of the Sudan Development Trust. "It is such an irony and an anti-climax to such a great life," said Mr Eiffe, who had known and worked with Dr Garang for about 15 years and who know considers himself a Southern Sudanese despite being born in Ireland.


Mr Eiffe first heard the news of the disappearance of Dr Garang’s helicopter while out with his children at the GP Karting grounds in Nairobi on Saturday.

"I was at the parking lot when I got a phone call to inform me that the presidential plane carrying Dr Garang had gone missing," he recalled.

"I immediately knew he had died in that crash. First, this was a presidential jet and someone would have made some communication were there any survivors. My instincts told me Dr Garang was no more. I cried all the way home."

Mr Eiffe first met Dr Garang in 1991 – not in the bush as one would expect – but in his small house behind Yaya Centre, Nairobi, where he was helping his children with homework. "He would not see me immediately and I waited until he was done with his children".

Mr Eiffe, also known as Commander De Mabior

Mr Eiffe, also known as Commander De Mabior because of his association with SPLA, chats with Dr Garang's wife, Rebecca, a few weeks before the hero died
He made Dr Garang's acquaintance when being associated with him was frowned upon, "when one would be treated as a leper just by being thought of as Dr Garang’s friend".

According to the man who later became an advocate of the SPLA and was in charge of the movement’s diplomacy, it was only in recent years that the world came to regard Dr Garang as a hero and a peacemaker.

He said: "It is a pity that it has taken most people such a long time to see Dr Garang as a liberator and not as a rebel. But the greater pity is that Dr Garang will get recognised for what he has done after his death".

There was one incident which Mr Eiffe will never forget. "It was in 1997 and we were expecting former US president Jimmy Carter to meet Dr Garang in Juba. Then at the last minute, the Government decided to stop Mr Carter from going to Juba. There was heavy shelling and bombing all over Juba. I had arrived the previous day with eight international journalists. The journalists carried on the interview anyway. But we all had to get into an underground hole after a bomb hit so close to where we were. We did this four times but the most remarkable thing was that Dr Garang never left his seat even once!"

Mr Eiffe, who is also known as Commander De Mabior because of his close association with Dr Garang and the SPLA, first went to Sudan as a Catholic priest but married a local girl. He left the church but continued with humanitarian work with international NGOs in Juba.

The man who later came to organise and co-ordinate meetings and interviews between Dr Garang and foreign dignitaries or journalists said: "The years between 1983 and 1991 gave him and his movement a bad name. I was a great critic of the movement then.

At about this time, the SPLA was being accused of committing human rights abuses, raping women and conscripting child soldiers in the South.

"The movement then was all about militarism," he recalled.

Mr Eiffe said that he once asked Dr Garang about the accusations. And Dr Garang replied: "It is almost impossible to control all the soldiers."

The area controlled by Dr Garang was about 850,000 square kilometres, the size of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi put together. The area had no roads and no means of communication. Most of the soldiers were volunteers who had to do without food, uniform and even shoes.

"This was one of the greatest weaknesses of Dr Garang though. That he was not able to discipline his soldiers who were committing these crimes in the name of SPLA," said Mr Eiffe.

A great change in Dr Garang and the movement came in 1991 after they were thrown into crisis when Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia fell.

Said Mr Eiffe: "He was like the mother and father of the movement. It was also then that the movement split and some of Dr Garang’s colleagues joined the Government. I cannot now tell whether Dr Garang changed because he was on his knees or perhaps he had been hostage to Mengistu who had been SPLA’s source of resources and ideals. We might never know for sure." He recalled that Dr Garang was a "very warm and calm person" although for most part of his life, he remained an enigma.

"Most people who have called themselves Sudan specialists hardly know him".

According to him, Dr Garang’s greatest strength was also his greatest weakness.

"He was so big a leader. He was a world apart from the rest of his people. He was a giant of a man both politically and intellectually.

"He carried a vision that he did not, or perhaps could not, share with most of his colleagues. And this is the very thing that has become a problem even now. He was so big that he did not develop enough institutions around him. Now it is even hard to envision Southern Sudan without him."

He believes that Dr Garang's autocratic style of leadership must have stemmed from a sense of paranoia. "He had been betrayed so many times, twice by those who were second in command to him. He could no longer trust easily and it was understandable for him to put under him those he could control."

Despite his weakness, Dr Garang had over the last couple of years earned enormous admiration from both his foes and friends alike.

For two decades, he had unwaveringly carried the dream and the vision of achieving commonality for all the people of Sudan – economically, politically and socially. He came close enough to realising his dream but his life was snuffed out in the plane crash last weekend.

But throughout his life, Dr Garang never lost the conviction that he was doing the right thing. According to Mr Eiffe, in 1992 Dr Garang was being interviewed by a Norwegian journalist who told him that there was no sense in the war because only the people from the South were being killed. According to the journalist, Dr Garang's cause looked hopeless. He asked the soldier why he could not just give up or get to some compromise.

To which Dr Garang replied: "We went to the bush to stop the enslavement of our people. If this means everyone of us dies to the last man and the last woman, then we will do it. We will do it for the future generation so that our children will be free. Besides, it is better to be dead than to be a slave."

Mr Eiffe said: "I will never forget what Dr Garang said."

Enough of the past, what are the prospects for the future?

"I do not think we will go back to war. The most uncertain thing is what happens now in the interim".

Before setting off for the burial in Juba today, Mr Eiffe said: "Today we mourn, tomorrow we think".