KURMUK, Sudan (Reuters) - Thousands of distraught and disbelieving southern Sudanese flocked to see the body of their former leader John Garang on Thursday as it was flown by plane from town to town around the vast region for a final farewell.
Soldiers carry the coffin of former rebel leader John Garang in Kurmuk village, Blue Nile region of Southern Sudan August 4, 2005. (reuters).
Garang’s death in a weekend helicopter crash — just three weeks after he was sworn in as Sudan’s first vice president under a January north-south peace deal — has devastated his followers around the expanse of bush and mountains.
"I want to show you peace is peace and everything will go well," Garang’s widow Rebecca told a crowd who gathered at Kurmuk, a town on the Ethiopian border where the southern rebels remember a famous victory against government troops in 1997.
Garang led the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in a bitter struggle with the Islamist Khartoum-based government for 21 years before signing the peace deal earlier this year to end Africa’s then longest-running civil war.
"We have a saying in our dialect: When a hero dies in the village, people cannot cry," Rebecca Garang added.
She shook hands with mourners gathered on a dirt airstrip where the cargo plane carrying Garang’s body landed.
The corpse was flown there from New Site, the small settlement where SPLM leaders gathered after his death to pay last respects and discuss their future.
Garang’s formal funeral will be on Saturday in Juba, the regional capital.
The SPLM want an inquiry into his death but do not suspect foul play. Even so, Garang’s death sparked three days of rioting between Arab northerners and animist or Christian southerners in the capital Khartoum that killed at least 130 people.
"KEEP GARANG’S PROMISE"
In Kurmuk, set in fertile, mountainous terrain, locals said SPLA/M members went round on Wednesday night telling residents to come out and view Garang’s body, in part to counter some skepticism over whether he had really died.
"We brought him for you to witness that he is not alive," SPLM deputy chairman Riak Machar told the subdued crowd.
Garang’s coffin, with a flag of southern Sudan draped over, was laid under a makeshift shelter of poles and tarpaulin.
Machar, who clashed with Garang in the past during bouts of in-fighting among the main figures in southern politics, said the peace deal the dead SPLM boss helped forge must stick.
"We have to keep his (Garang’s) promise," he said.
At New Site, before the body was flown away with a 100-member SPLA security escort in the plane, prayers were said around Garang’s coffin.
"I say with my heart today the SPLM has become like a body without a head," said Bahjat Batarseh, a U.S. church minister and friend of Garang’s who came to Sudan after the accident.
Garang had strong support in America during the war that killed 2 million people, mostly from hunger and disease.
In SPLM stronghold Rumbek, a couple of women screamed in grief as Garang’s coffin arrived. Doctors were at hand to carry off fainting mourners and at least three women were led away.
In fading daylight, a choir sang gospel songs that appealed to God to accept Garang.
"It’s really devastating — he was a great leader, he was like our father," said James Agok, 23, who had been waiting to catch a glimpse of the coffin since morning.
"My fear is that we’ll go back to zero now."