By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
JUBA, Sudan -- The women wept and wailed, making rhythmic, guttural sounds. They collapsed over the coffin of John Garang, the Sudanese vice president and former rebel leader killed in a helicopter crash.
Then, one by one, the women fainted. It was their formal role at Garang's funeral in this southern city earlier this month, a rite of collective female mourning in a patriarchal society where it is taboo for men to cry, even for one of Africa's most revered icons.
But Garang's widow, Rebecca, did not break down in tears. Instead, she stiffened her resolve and rose to the larger occasion -- a tense and confused moment for a country that had just lost a pivotal leader and was threatening to erupt in violence. Garang, who commanded one side in Sudan's 21-year civil war, was the key architect of a January peace accord between north and south.
As soon as the news of his death reached her, Rebecca Garang, a tall and imposing woman in her fifties, began making firm press statements and vigorous speeches. She called for calm and urged people to continue her husband's mission. Within days, she had emerged as an eloquent and powerful force in a place where women rarely have a public role.
"I will not miss my husband as long as you people of Sudan are the watchdogs," she said at the funeral, referring to the peace deal that set up a national power-sharing arrangement. "In our culture we say, if you kill the lion, you see what the lioness will do."
Although hundreds of rioters took to the streets after John Garang's death in an angry spasm of looting and violence that left more than 100 dead in the capital, Khartoum, and this southern city, Rebecca Garang set a tone that helped calm the nation's emotions. Over and over, she told radio listeners that his death had been an accident caused by bad weather.
"It's just his body which is gone," she said on the air. "His vision of peace remains."
President Bush called from the White House to thank her, and even her husband's former enemies in Khartoum recognized her contribution. She was praised at the swearing-in of Salva Kiir Mayardit, the former senior aide to her husband who replaced him as vice president of the new unified government of Sudan.
"After he died, the words from Mama Rebecca's mouth have been like milk," Abdel-Basit Sabdarat, the minister of information, told government and rebel leaders who had gathered for the subdued ceremony. "We were wounded. She was there to heal and became a symbol of the country."
Many Sudanese hope Rebecca Garang's new role will become permanent. Her husband's personality was seen as a dominating force behind the peace deal. Kiir, who was intelligence chief and military commander of John Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Army, lacks his political stature.
Three weeks after her husband's death, Rebecca Garang visited Uganda to demonstrate solidarity between that country and southern Sudan. It was a politically meaningful visit, because her husband was killed in the crash of a Ugandan military helicopter as he returned home from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's ranch.
Many southerners believe the crash was a plot by the Khartoum government or by rebel factions who wanted to steal power from the vice president. Rebecca Garang has repeatedly disputed that theory, even saying she had asked her husband not to fly because of inclement weather. Diplomats involved in investigating the crash said there is so far no reason to believe that it was anything other than an accident.
"Rebecca has been the one calming force," said William Ezekiel, an editor at the Khartoum Monitor newspaper. "She's a symbol of her husband, but she's also representing her own bravery and the hopes for peace without her husband."
During her husband's career, Rebecca Garang often stood by his side at public events, a striking figure with a crown of jet-black hair, dressed in bold West African prints. After his political speeches were over, she would make her own comments about the importance of girls' education or women's rights.
In fact, people close to her described her as no less politically savvy, determined and tough than her husband. She was a commander in the rebel army and was known to push her female soldiers so hard that they begged for breaks. She was also known to give rousing speeches to inspire her troops.
"She would tell us that we have to stand on our own two feet and fight," said Nunu Suwad, 28, a longtime friend and associate in the rebel movement. "She respected you if you worked hard."
Like her husband, Rebecca Garang traveled frequently to the West. The couple's six children were educated in the United States and Europe. In recent years, she helped start schools for war orphans and promoted the rights of female veterans of the rebel movement.
"She told us, 'I am with you. I will help you,' " Suwad said during the funeral, surrounded by weeping women as she spoke. "Women don't usually get much respect in our culture. But Rebecca has earned that for us."
Several months ago, Rebecca Garang visited Rumbek, the interim capital of southern Sudan, to lead a workshop for female veterans and an effort to retrain them for civil jobs.
"Rights are not given. You have to take them," she said in an interview that day. "We fought in the bush, and now that we have come back, we can't be treated the way we used to be. We can't make the mistakes we made in the old Sudan."