JUBA, Sudan – The referendum is known as “The Final Walk to Freedom” — a symbolic journey for those who fought in decades of war, for villagers whose homes were bombed, and for orphans who ended up in U.S. communities as the Lost Boys of Sudan.

The weeklong independence balloting starts Sunday for the southern third of Sudan — Africa’s biggest country — on whether to draw a border between the north, which is mostly Arab and Muslim, and the south, populated mostly by blacks who are Christian or animist.

For southern Sudanese like Atem Yak, who survived war, lived amid dire poverty and endured discrimination, it has been a long time coming.

Yak was 5 when Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956. Yak, now 60, remembers when two dozen chiefs died in attacks in his home village of Kongor in the 1960s. In Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, Yak’s deep black African skin incited mistreatment.

“I never saw the flag of Sudan as something I owed allegiance to,” he said. “The national anthem never represented my will. So I will not shed tears when Sudan breaks into two, provided that this is done peacefully. I will be happy.”

Southerners in Juba were ecstatic Friday as they anticipated the vote. Wearing feathers and grasping ceremonial carved sticks, they danced on dirt streets in a growing city that will be the south’s future capital if the referendum passes.

Southern Sudanese will cast simple, illustrated ballots at polling stations under thatched roof shelters in the remote and impoverished countryside and near newly paved roads in Juba, a city of concrete houses and mud huts that got its first paved roads only in recent years.

Yak is educated and wealthy enough to own a car, a rarity in a region where half the people rely on food aid, only 15 percent can read and children die for want of basic medicine. Yak sees the referendum as an opportunity for the African residents of Sudan, who are often denied resources in favor of northern Arabs.

A sharp economic divide lies between the regions, with infrastructure development and government programs heavily weighted to the north. Only 2 percent of southerners complete primary school, while 21 percent in the north do. The south, which is the size of France, has only 30 miles of paved roads. The north has 2,200 miles.

The top U.S. official in Southern Sudan, Barrie Walkley, said the lack of paved roads made getting polling materials to the sites “remarkably difficult,” and that helicopters and motorcycles were used.

The United States has made the referendum a foreign policy priority and has offered to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror if Khartoum doesn’t hinder the vote, which would create the world’s newest country.