JUBA, Sudan – Men and women walked to election stations in the middle of the night Sunday to create a new nation: Southern Sudan. Some broke out into song in the long lines. And a veteran of Sudan’s two-decade civil war, a conflict that left 2 million people dead, choked back tears.
“We lost a lot of people,” said Lt. Col. William Ngang Ayuen, who was snapping pictures of camouflaged soldiers waiting in long lines to vote. The 48-year-old turned away from his comrades for a moment to maintain composure.
Thousands of people began casting ballots Sunday during a weeklong vote to choose the destiny of this war-ravaged, desperately poor but oil-rich region. Because only 15 percent of southern Sudan’s 8.7 million people can read, the ballot choices were as simple as could be: a drawing of a single hand marked “separation” and another of clasped hands marked “unity.”
Almost everyone – including Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes in the western Sudan region of Darfur – agrees that the mainly Christian south will secede from the mainly Muslim north.
“We are saying goodbye to Khartoum, the capital of old Sudan. We are coming to have our own capital here in Juba,” said Tom Drani, a 48-year-old taxi driver.
Southern Sudan is among the world’s poorest regions. The entire France-sized region has only 30 miles of paved roads.
Southerners, who mainly define themselves as African, have long resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern Arab-dominated government of taking their oil revenues without investing in the south.
This week’s referendum is part of the peace deal that ended the country’s 1983-2005 civil war. Northerners had no say in the voting process and Darfur, which belongs to the north, is not affected by the vote.
Independence won’t be finalized until July, and many issues are yet to be worked out. Most of Sudan’s oil is in the south, while the pipelines to the sea run through the north, tying the two regions together economically.
Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir was visibly emotional as he remembered those killed in the north-south war. Kiir voted at the mausoleum of rebel hero John Garang.
“I am sure that they didn’t die in vain,” he told the crowd. Women chanted and one man waved a sign saying: “A road toward sovereignty. A new nation to be born on the African continent!!!”
Many voters lined up in the middle of the night, and some slept at the site of Garang’s grave. Among the voters was Julia Kiden.
“We feel that after the referendum we will be delivered from oppression from the north,” the 37-year-old said.
About 3.9 million people registered to vote. A simple majority must vote for separation for the referendum to pass, but 60 percent of registered voters must cast ballots for the vote to be valid. Results won’t be finalized until February.