MICHELE NORRIS, host:
John Garang led one of the longest guerrilla wars in modern African history. NPR's Jason Beaubien has this profile of the 60-year-old rebel leader turned politician.
JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:
In a country threatening to rip apart at its seams, John Garang recently came to be viewed by political observers as the man most capable of solving tensions in Darfur and other parts of the vast country. For more than two decades, Garang kept the disparate tribes of southern Sudan united in their fight against Khartoum. Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Army, which was made up mainly of Christians and animists, took up arms when the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum attempted to impose Islamic law in 1983. The war left some two million people dead and only ended officially this January.
When Garang arrived in Khartoum last month to take up his position as vice president in a new power-sharing government, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to welcome him as a returning hero.
(Soundbite of July 2005 ceremony)
Vice President JOHN GARANG (Sudan): I, John Garang Demabior, swear by Almighty God that as the first vice president of the Republic of Sudan...
BEAUBIEN: The tall, burly Garang was educated in the United States. He got a PhD in economics from Iowa State University. While fighting in the swamps and arid plains of south Sudan, Garang remained in contact with the outside world. He courted Soviets during the Cold War. Later, he rallied American Christians against the Muslim-dominated north, and constantly he championed the cause of the southern Sudanese.
Although his political base was in south Sudan, Garang talked frequently in recent months about the need for Sudan to address the rumblings of discontent that are emanating from all corners of the country. In an interview in February of this year with NPR, Garang said that the roots of the current rebel uprising in Darfur are the same ones that pushed the SPLA into its two-decade-long fight with Khartoum. The Darfur crisis has left more than two million people homeless and shows few signs of being resolved soon.
(Soundbite of February 2005 interview)
Dr. GARANG: The situation in Darfur is not that different from the situation in southern Sudan and other parts of the country. It's an issue of exclusion essentially, of marginalization, so they took up arms for the same reasons that southern Sudanese took up arms.
BEAUBIEN: Last month, rebels in the east of the country clashed with government troops near the Red Sea city of Port Sudan. The rebels in the east also complained that they've been marginalized and neglected by the ruling elite in Khartoum. Garang made it clear that as part of the new government, he intended to try to address the various rebel groups' grievances with dialogue rather than helicopter gunships.
In Rumbek, the new administrative capital of southern Sudan, people slowly today filed into the main square-slash-soccer field in the center of town as news of Garang's death spread. Ragnhild Ek, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Rumbek, says the gathering was peaceful, but security forces told people to return home and stay calm.
Ms. RAGNHILD EK (UNHCR): They're extremely, extremely sad. They think it's the saddest day in their history they can think of. There's been a lot of hope here and people were very much looking forward to this future, and this, of course, came as a very heavy blow to them.
BEAUBIEN: Salva Kiir Mayardit, the deputy head of the SPLM, the political wing of Garang's SPLA, is widely expected to take Garang's post as vice president. Mayardit, speaking in Nairobi earlier today, said the SPLM remains committed to the north-south peace deal Garang signed in January.
Mr. SALVA KIIR MAYARDIT (Deputy Head, SPLM): I take this opportunity to assure the southern Sudanese in particular, and the Sudanese people in general, that we in the SPLM leadership will continue the vision and objectives of the movement that the ...(unintelligible) had articulated and hoped to implement.
BEAUBIEN: Mayardit and other leaders of the SPLA are meeting in southern Sudan to plan how Garang's rebel movement-turned-political party moves forward without its charismatic leader. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Johannesburg.