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 spontaneous song in the long lines. And a veteran of Sudan’s 22-year 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, 48, who was snapping pictures of camouflaged soldiers waiting in long lines to vote. He turned away from his comrades for a moment to maintain composure.

“Today is good for them.”

Thousands of people began casting ballots Sunday during a weeklong vote to choose the destiny of this war-ravaged and desperately poor but oil-rich region.

Only 15 percent of southern Sudan’s 8.7 million people can read, so the ballot choices were as simple as could be: a drawing of a single hand marked “separation” and another of clasped hands marked “unity.”

Long lines snaked through the southern capital of Juba. In rural areas, tribesmen carrying bows and arrows walked dirt paths from their straw huts to one-room schools to vote.

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Almost everyone — including Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, who has been indicted for alleged 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 motorcycle taxi driver. He predicted 100 percent support for independence or something close to it.

Southern Sudan is among the world’s poorest regions. The entire France-sized region has only 30 miles of paved roads. The United Nations says a 15-year-old girl here has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school.

Southerners, who mainly define themselves as African, have long resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern Arab-dominated government of taking their oil revenue without investing in the south.

This week’s referendum is part of the peace deal that ended the 1983-2005 civil war between the north and south. Northerners had no say in the voting process, and the western region of 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, including north-south oil rights, water rights to the White Nile, border demarcation and the status of the contested region of Abyei, a north-south border region where the biggest threat of a return to conflict exists. 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 a man waved a sign saying: “A road toward sovereignty. A new nation to be born on the African continent!!!”

 


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