Obituary: Emma McCune

Peter Moszynski
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:41

Emma McCune, aid worker: born Assam, India 3 February 1964; married 1991 Riak Machar; died Nairobi 24 November 1993.

EMMA McCUNE was a leading figure in the life of Southern Sudan. She became a symbol of caring and commitment in the killing grounds of a horrific civil war. Starting as an aid worker, she married the rebel commander Riak Machar. She used her position as his wife to bring real changes in the lives of hundreds of thousands of war-struck civilians, always asking visitors for seeds for the women's co-operatives she set up with both refugees and local people. She even attempted to introduce codes of military conduct to temper the barbarism of the inter- factional fighting.

Born in India, where her father worked as an engineer, Emma spent a fairly normal and happy childhood in Yorkshire, being first introduced to Africa during her art history course at Oxford Polytechnic: she spent one summer doing field work in Khartoum for the Refugees Study Programme. In a typically spontaneous decision, she took a year off to fly to Australia with a friend in a single-engined plane. After returning to Africa upon graduation, she enrolled in a part-time MA course at the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University, paying her way by working as student liaison officer at the Sudanese Cultural Centre, where she dealt with the troubles and needs of hundreds of Sudanese students. Moved by the tragic tales of many of the refugees and students she dealt with, McCune threw herself into the struggle for a solution to the bloodletting in Southern Sudan, helping found a peace group in London that set up Sudan Update, a newsletter disseminating accurate information after a military coup eliminated Sudan's fledgling free press and democratic institutions.

No one was surprised when she returned to Sudan to do field work in 1989, nor when she decided to remain in the south, to work for Street Kids International, on trying to maintain something of the southern education system, completely destroyed by decades of war and neglect. She won people over with her boundless energy and enthusiasm. While there she met Riak Machar, a dashing local commander of the Sudan People's Liberation Army. They married in June 1991.

Riak Machar's rapid rise to prominence two months later, when he led a breakaway faction of the SPLA, left McCune cut off from the outside world, until her international media exposure as 'the Warlord's Wife' - the extraordinary tale of an ordinary Yorkshire convent girl married to an African guerrilla leader. To those who knew her, she was so much more. Her tragic and untimely death was all the more poignant in that she was killed in an ordinary traffic accident in Nairobi, where she had been grounded on medical orders having lived and worked for years in the centre of a vicious civil war. Southern Sudanese the world over are mourning for a woman they thought of as 'truly one of us'.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments