Southern Sudan on the cusp of history as voters eagerly await independence


FILE– In this Tuesday Jan.4 2011 file photo, Pro-separation activists hold signs and chant pro-independence slogans outside the Juba airport in southern Sudan where Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrived. Separation or unity. A solitary hand or two of them clasped together. That’s the choice _ and the ballot image _ that close to 4 million registered voters in Southern Sudan will face beginning Sunday, when a seven-day referendum on separation from the Khartoum-based north begins. The vote, which is likely to lead to the world’s newest country, is the culmination of a 2005 peace deal that ended 20-plus years of north-south civil war. (AP Photo/Pete Muller/file) (Pete Muller – AP)


(OMAHA, Nebraska NSV) — On Sunday Southern Sudanese both at home and abroad flocked to the polls to cast their votes in a weeklong referendum on independence of the South. Just months ago there was uncertainty as to whether the referendum was going to take place on time.

For example, The New York Times reported: “Over the past year, there has been such a steady drumbeat of Armageddon predictions and hand-wringing over the referendum that broad array of potential problems has been prepared for and contingency plans discussed. The stage is now set for the vote to be historic and highly emotional, but not a catastrophe.”

The self-determination referendum is the key promise of the 2005 peace treaty that ended the north-south civil that had raged on for 21 years. Millions are encouraged by initial reporting which has called the turnout very huge, back in southern Sudan. President Salva has cast the historic vote.The energy has been electric. And optimism and a sense of renewed hope are in full display and believed to stay that way, at least for as long as they can last

But for people used to suffering and adversity all their lives, certain factors come as no brainer. It was why during  late afternoon hours today in Omaha—one of select eight US cities where voting is taking place— many voters were still in lines after long hours of wait, all seeming unfazed by the snow-induced extremely cold weather that affected  all-day commutes.

Even amid all that, signs of compassion still abounded as all voters braved the frigid and snowy grounds, standing for hours in front of a small building devoted to referendum voting. Two elderly, frail women were pulled from the sidelines and taken in to cast their votes. A couple of young women who were taken in to vote were seen cradling their babies, showing off the kind of smiles that is synonymous with history.

The ones The New Sudan Vision talked to in the lines said they hunkered down, saying the cold temperatures on the referendum Day pale in comparison or are no match for the countless periods of gut-wrenching injustice they have been through.
For a moment the voting precinct seemed like pre-battle front line, with an enthusiastic crowd of young people —many of whom former child refugees—bursting into occasional rounds of revolutionary songs.

Of all the countries affected by civil wars, few are said to have drawn as much last-minute attention as Sudan.
Analysts  have said  the spotlight has been huge in part thanks to a track record of north-south conflict that went on for over half a century; that it is due to the genocide in Darfur, the ICC indictment of the  first sitting president and above all, the self-determination exercise that began today.

For a trajectory, the war started in 1955, one year before Sudan gained independence from the Britain. That lasted until 1972.
Then in 1983, the second civil war erupted and that ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
The cost in terms of lives: over 2-5 million, not to mention the 4 million who were uprooted from their homes and condemned to horrors of living in refuge, without a sense of place to nurture.

Barring any accident, observers say all indications point to the fact that Africa’s largest country is about to untie the historical knot given the referendum vote on independence of the South, which started today. The result, of course, will be the creation of world’s newest country on July 9, 2011.

Honoring the memories of fallen

The referendum day has allowed southern Sudanese a rare moment and a window into their lives to open up and share compelling stories of loss, of fears and hopes.

For  them, this day culminated with lots of reflection, because they are saying some days will never be forgotten; like that eerie stillness experienced by  tens of thousands of children who could spend nights in wilderness in search of safety, after fleeing  the government-sponsored slaughter at the height of civil war in the 80s; like the days when death was ubiquitous and loved ones would die in the battle fields or due to war-related causes; like the day Dr. John Garang De Mabior died in a helicopter crash just seven  months after the peace was signed.

Many who at the time were at their tender ages have now grown and are thankful their vote will serve as honor to the memories of all who gave their lives making ultimate sacrifices for the sake of the South and posterity.
One reflection was in a form of rhetorical question about what might have kept these small children alive, banding until hope was reclaimed.

But for answer the solace was surely due to individual gut instinct largely believed to be the result of an innate, solid cultural upbringing that has always been the pride among ethnicities in the South.

“Allelluya ! Freedom is here right now”, declared Elizabeth Kau Ater, an old woman we approached after she cast her vote. Ms. Ater was thankful for the historic day—one her husband and eldest son could not see after they were killed in the civil war. She directed a motherly advice to young people, telling them to follow in the footsteps of John Garang.

Perhaps the most riveting anticipation of the Referendum Day came days ago from University of Michigan law Professor Laura Nyantung Ahang Beny Acuar—herself a native of southern Sudan—who in a Facebook response, said:

“I’m planning to vote next week — in Sudan’s out-of-country referendum — it will be one of the most monumental moments in my life, and in my daughter’s life. ..she will be in my arms. I will think of all those sleepless nights, and nightmares about how southern Sudanese were suffering, especially in the 1990s while the world sat in its usual silence. I will think of all of our elders who did not make it to Jan. 9, 2011,… but who were so pivotal in shaping our ideas and will to fight. I will think of all those inspired moments that pushed me to work hard in college, despite holding down minimum wage jobs at the same time (often 3 at a time), knowing that there was a larger cause and that many people were sacrificing so much more on so little for JANUARY 9, 2011. I will think highly of Dr. John Garang De Mabior whose doctoral thesis pushed me into another world when I first read it at Stanford University as part of a research project I was doing (Jonglei Canal). I will think of my future, our collective future, my daughter’s future. I just pray that the rank and file of the people are rewarded at the end of the day — and I will fight for that.”

In an op-ed she wrote on the eve of the referendum, Dr. Nyantung talked about all the celebration that will ensue but also reminded people of all the crushing burdens of postwar societies.

For those who voted today, the first day came as a fleeting moment, but the reach and impact of purple fingers will be felt far beyond January 15, 2011, when voting is set to close.

In the eyes of voters, the arc of destiny is real. The great yearning for freedom has been long time coming.

And as millions wait to usher in that young independent nation, they, too, are speaking approvingly of the SPLM, calling it a paragon whose liberation template may be looked at someday across Africa—they are crediting the liberation movement for this arc of deliverance, finally carrying the day for millions who have suffered oppression after oppression.
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