John Garang was a government army officer sent to quell a mutiny of 500 southern troops who were resisting orders to be shipped north. It took him 22 years to come back.
By Gray Phombeah
BBC News website
Garang fought for more than 20 years
Thus began the story of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which fought one of Africa's longest-running wars between the Christian and animist South and the Muslim, Arab-speaking North.
Instead of following his superiors' orders, Mr Garang went on to encourage mutinies in other garrisons and set himself at the head of the rebellion against the Khartoum government.
Between 1983 and the peace agreement signed in January 2005, Sudan's civil war took nearly two million lives and left millions more displaced.
The war officially ended and John Garang was appointed first vice-president - a position he held for only three weeks before he was killed in a helicopter crash.
With his beard, bulky physique, and jet-black skin of his Dinka ethnic group, he came across as one of the most complicated rebels on a continent that has seen every shade of self-proclaimed revolutionaries and liberators.
The rebel leader with a PhD in Agricultural Economics from the United States spent his early and middle life in the bush planning to blow up oil wells.
Despite his being at the centre of the Sudan conflict for so long, very little was known about Mr Garang the man.
A military man who believed in a military solution for his country
He was, at best, described as a difficult man caught up in a complicated war.
"Becoming Vice President after 22 years leading a guerrilla army in the bush John Garang was an expert in survival: someone who knew how to bend with the wind yet maintain his political objectives, someone who knew how to seem all things to all men," says Peter Moszynski, a Sudan specialist who covered the war for many years.
"Above all he was someone who understood the cardinal rule of
political longevity: keep your friends close but your enemies closer...
"He was also one of the few senior southerners who really believed in the concept of a united Sudan and his passing will greatly strengthen the call for secession"
Gill Lusk - deputy editor of Africa Confidential and a Sudan specialist who interviewed the ex-guerrilla leader several times over the years - described Mr Garang as a proud man.
"He's a man with charisma and his leadership qualities are quite obvious," Ms Lusk told the BBC News website.
"He's very much a professional military man, a man who believes he's clever.
"He likes grand ideas, and has a great sense of humour - at least among his people."
John Garang was born in 1945 into the southern Dinka group famous for worshipping the sky, playing music on ram's horns and their love of roast meat.
His family was Christian and he went on to study in the United States.
He studied at Grinnell College, Iowa, and later returned to the US for military training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
President Bashir came to an agreement with Garang
Mr Garang's first taste of guerrilla warfare was at the start of the civil war with the southern-based Anya Anya movement in 1962.
Ten years later, the Khartoum government signed a deal with Anya Anya and the south became a self-governing region.
Mr Garang and others were absorbed in the government army and moved to Khartoum.
But five years after oil was discovered in southern Sudan in 1978, the civil war erupted again - this time involving the government forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, SPLM, and its military wing, the SPLA.
The ideological profile of SPLA was as shadowy as Mr Garang himself.
He varied from Marxism to drawing support from Christian fundamentalists in the US.
There was always confusion on central issues such as whether the SPLA was fighting for independence for southern Sudan or merely more autonomy.
Friends and foes alike found the SPLA's human rights record in southern Sudan and Mr Garang's style of governance disturbing.
"The SPLA has definitely changed quite a lot over the years for the better," Gill Lusk said as the war ground to a close.
"But in the past it was guilty of committing serious human rights violations in southern parts of the country.
"John Garang did not tolerate dissent and anyone who disagreed with him or the leadership was either imprisoned or killed."
The SPLA was accused of human rights abuses
In the murky world of guerrilla warfare, John Garang survived attempts on his life from those within and outside his movement.
"He outfoxed everyone else by being cunning, by staying one step ahead," says Peter Verney, editor of Sudan Update and Independent Information Services.
"You can tell by the type of security around him whenever he travels."
But he was credited for keeping the movement together through turbulent times.
By 1986 the SPLA was estimated to have 12,500 armed men, organized into 12 battalions and equipped with small arms and a few mortars, according to Sudan specialists who monitored the war.
By 1989 the SPLA's strength had reached 20,000 to 30,000 and rose to between 50,000 to 60,000 in 1991.
Speaking before his death, Peter Verney said a new Garang had been emerging out of the ashes of Sudan's bloody war.
Sudan's civil war took nearly two million lives
"He has been consistent," Mr Verney argued. "He has been carrying the hopes and aspirations of southern Sudanese - and he has known all along that they would ditch him if he didn't deliver."
"He was aloof before, very much to himself.
"But we are seeing him now becoming more approachable, becoming a politician, even a statesman.
"There is a new sense of dignity and openness about him - or perhaps just PR."
His premature death leaves an unfulfilled mission, and great uncertainty in the south.