Books: The warlord's wife and the tea-planter's daughter

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The Independent Culture
Till the Sun Grows Cold: Searching for my Daughter, Emma

By Maggie McCune

Headline pounds 16.99

It is one of the myths of southern Sudan that it is a "forgotten" region. Forgotten by the politicians, perhaps, but not by the aid world. For the last decade, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent - and mis-spent - in relief operations in the south. A huge aid community has grown up in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. An army of young expatriates, many of them with little experience either of aid or of southern Sudan, marches in and out of the five-star dude ranch in northern Kenya where the United Nations' Operation Lifeline Sudan accommodates its field staff.

Emma McCune was part of this community and was, in some ways, typical of it. She had no formal training in development; her interest in Africa grew out of friendships made while studying art in Oxford and later, as she grew increasingly involved in African life and politics in London, out of love affairs with African men. She relished the social life of Kenya.

But in other ways Emma was altogether different. It was not just the lifestyle that attracted her, the fact that the aid network was a safe house - not exactly a job for life, but almost. She had a ferocious commitment to the people of southern Sudan. She admired them and listened to them. But most of all she was different because she married one of them - Riek Machar, a senior commander in the Sudan People's Liberation Army whose split from SPLA strongman John Garang in 1991, only two months after his wedding to Emma, unleashed a chain of horrors that continues to this day.

Less than two and a half years after her marriage, Emma was dead - killed, together with her unborn child, in a road accident in Nairobi. Conspiracy theories abounded, but the truth was shockingly commonplace: driving across a well-known Nairobi black spot, an intersection without traffic lights, Emma had accelerated into the path of a bus and been thrown from her vehicle. She died before reaching hospital. She was 29 years old.

Standing by Emma's grave in Leer, the Sudanese village where Riek was born, her mother Maggie McCune found herself asking "how we got from there to here". How a child of India, a convent-educated English girl who loved old English roses and riding to hounds, smart parties and sassy hats, became a warlord's wife in Africa. And how she herself, a good Catholic who wanted nothing more than seven children, married a scoundrel and was forced to learn survival skills of her own.

Till the Sun Grows Cold is the story of two women who "paid a terrible price in pursuit of happiness", whose adult lives were determined by marriage to charming, charismatic men who painted themselves into corners. Maggie's husband lied about almost everything; Emma's told her only as much he wanted her to know. Maggie separated, and survived. It is impossible to know what would have become of Emma. As she herself wrote: "The future is uncertain."

Maggie Bruce, daughter of a tea-plantation manager in Assam, was only 20 when she married Julian "Bunny" McCune, a friend of her father and 14 years her senior. He had "the unique ability to make a woman feel wonderful". He was "utterly charming and completely believable" - words that could equally well be applied to Riek. The couple lived in India, where Emma was born, until the shadow of war over Kashmir prompted a move to England in 1966. By 1973 the marriage was effectively over: Bunny spent money they didn't have, pretended to be working when he wasn't, "borrowed" money from the local Conservative Association and was unfaithful. In 1975, when his wife was in court fighting eviction from the family home, he was fishing on the Tweed. Maggie took her four children and left him. Less than a year later he committed suicide.

From a lovely old Queen Anne house in Yorkshire, the family found themselves dependent on social services. A "surly and unsympathetic" council employee blocked their request for assistance - arguing that they were comfortably housed by a friend and ignoring the fact that the friend needed them out - until Maggie threatened "to rent an old caravan to live in and drill holes in the roof for rain to pour through onto me and my children". In order to survive and keep the children in good schools, she pumped petrol. When the dog chewed up a pound note, she pasted it together and asked the bank for a new one. She hid from friends and relatives. "I was my own worst enemy because the ones who did still visit us were true friends, those who didn't mind being seen on a lowly council estate."

At Maggie's lowest, it was Emma who pulled her up by her socks. Emma, aged 12. "Mum, why are you letting yourself go?" she asked one night when the children were abandoned to their own devices after an other wretched day on the pumps. "Look at yourself ... You are letting yourself go ... You have got to pull yourself together."

I met Emma the year before she died and was not at all disposed to join her army of admirers, mistrustful of the lazy dependence of journalists on aid workers. But she was utterly beguiling and we quickly became friends, finding much in common. Emma was seeing friendships wither as Riek's faction stood accused of terrible human rights violations. I lived with a militia leader in Lebanon and I too had been hurt by the way that people who had courted us during the war were critical of us, and unappreciative of him, when the war was over.

I had forced the pace of the relationship and was berating myself for a fool until there was a knock on my door the day after I had met him and a small voice said: "Shall I leave some clothes with you?" Almost 10 years later we were still together. Emma had been equally forward on first meeting Riek, but had to wait more than a year for another encounter. When she finally saw him again, having travelled across southern Sudan with a male friend, his first words were: "Why have you brought him with you?" He proposed before she left, and she accepted. It was a genuine love match. But still she said: "I wonder where we'll be in 10 years' time."

I felt she was out of her depth: not the "consummate politician" that her mother saw but, despite her superficial sophistication, an innocent abroad - unsure of her place in both her adopted worlds, and with unrealistic expectations of what she could expect from either. She had been surprised and furious when, having married into the SPLA's internecine war, she was fired from her job with Street Kids International, which felt its neutrality threatened. She was equally surprised and furious when Riek launched his coup against Garang, in her absence, without telling her. "What the hell do you think you've been playing at?" her mother quotes her as asking her husband on her return to Africa. "This marriage is meant to be a partnership, right?"

Now Riek was rumoured to be in bed with Khartoum. Emma said it wasn't possible - Riek denied it. I told her it was certain: there was film of boxes ... weapons ... being parachuted into areas under his control. Who but Khartoum had planes in the air? Emma said it must have been Ethiopia; they had supported the SPLA. They had, but not recently. She must have known it, but she chose not to believe it.

Today Riek resides in Khartoum, leader of a group of southern defectors fighting alongside the government. Initially feted by the government and installed in an office in the grounds of the presidential palace, he recently suffered the ignominy of seeing his men disarmed. Emma's mother says she likes to regard him, "for Emma's sake if nothing else, as a modern- day Gerry Adams or Yasser Arafat, consorting with the `enemy' for the greater good".

Emma had shown herself willing to do almost anything for Riek. Some think he manipulated her, and her contacts, to get UN aid after he split from Garang. He didn't have to. Believing in him, she lent herself willingly. On one occasion she went as far as to call hungry civilians to a fictitious food drop in the town of Waat so that CNN could get famine footage. She shrugged off criticism: "At least we got Waat on the world stage." But even Emma couldn't have got Khartoum on the world stage. At least she was spared that.

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