emma mccune

Emma’s war, the biography of a British aid worker in the Sudan

Emma’s war is the complex and powerful biography of a British aid worker in the Sudan at the ’90s.


I had vaguely heard about Emma McCune a long time ago. I knew she had fallen in love with a warlord in Sudan, married him, and created a scandal in public opinion. Her story, Emma’s War, as told by U.S. journalist Deborah Scroggins, was selected by our virtual book club recently. As I delved into the story, I discovered that Emma had gone to Sudan with the intention of staying there (she had already been there on brief visits) around the same time as I moved there, in 1989. So I was quickly able to make sense of the atmosphere and political context Emma found herself in. However, unlike me, she had gone to work in the troubled south. She was immediately plunged into a catastrophic situation, comprehensively described by Scroggins, who also happened to be in Sudan at the same time, writing articles for the newspaper Atlanta.

The first aspect of Scroggins’ writing that struck me was the detailed account of Sudan’s history before, during and after Emma’s time there. Because I had lived and worked in the country, it was interesting to discover things I had never imagined. However, other book club members found the long preamble prior to Emma’s appearance rather heavy.

book coverThe part devoted to the tragedies that occurred in the country before, during and after Emma’s time is so long and detailed that the reader sometimes wonders whether the book is supposed to be about the British aid worker, or about Sudan. When Emma finally arrives on the scene, the build-up of the context has been exasperatingly long. And the reader’s curiosity is not satisfied until the second half of the book. Prior to this, the writer introduces her with light brushstrokes, implying that the best is yet to come, and then turns back to her account of Sudan.

Anyone who has the patience to read and understand all the information that is presented will realise that this is a unique tome about Sudan: nowhere else have I found such realistic and objective information. But, as I said, it’s a long haul to get to Emma’s story. Perhaps it couldn’t be developed more, since both Emma’s stay in Sudan and her life were cut short: she died in a road accident in Nairobi in 1993, pregnant with her first child.

This lack of development is a pity, because the portrait of Emma is intriguing. We see her in different lights: Scroggins highlights Emma’s courage, her determination to immerse herself in Sudanese reality almost as though she wants to become a part of it, her ability to withstand extremely difficult physical and psychological conditions.

At the same time, however, she tells us about the disastrous effect that Emma’s choices and behaviour have on the aid workers who at that time are desperately trying to save lives, juggling innumerable negotiations between all the parties, a job which requires a huge amount of diplomacy and sang-froid.

emma mccune

Emma is presented to us with all the facets that make up her personality: sometimes we see her as brave, energetic, idealistic, open and determined, and at other times she is insecure, impulsive, irresponsible, and emotionally unstable. Probably Emma was all of these, and the author skilfully balances the kaleidoscope of resources Emma taps into at different stages of her stay in Sudan.

One thing left me perplexed at the end of the book: Scroggins holds that the period during which Emma lost her life was not the happiest for her. Her decision to support her husband, who was held by many to be responsible for more than one massacre of innocent people, had isolated her: many of her contacts had distanced themselves from her. She had discovered that her husband, Riek Machar, had re-established a relationship with his first wife during a trip to London. She had lost her job and was in serious financial difficulty. However, in an interview, one of her best friends, Sally Dudmesh, said: “She had finally found the perfect balance between her life in Sudan and her life with her husband; she had found a lovely house to share with him and to top it all, she was pregnant. Emma could not have been happier. That is the moment death chose to take her.

So the book leaves many questions unanswered: was Emma truly happy about her choice? Was she convinced? Did she not, as many thought, regret having given up everything to follow a warlord? In any case, on 24th November 1993, pregnant, she lost her life in a tragic road accident in Nairobi. She is buried in Ler, her husband’s native village in South Sudan, in a tomb which is all that remains intact after a Nuer militia attack destroyed the rest of the husband’s family compound.


Claudia Landini, May 2015


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