Sudan the People Can't Wait!

Article excerpt

Sudan will at last know its fate on 14 February, when the final results of the referendum on Southern secession or unity with the North will be announced in Khartoum. It is tempting to compare this event to the falling of the Berlin Wall or Nelson Mandela walking free. It has all the weight of such globally important moments, but the referendum is all the more powerful as the people have not been watching, but participating in their own history-making. Tarik Elrey reports from the Southern Sudanese capital, Juba.

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WE ARE VOTING FOR INDEPENDence because of our ancestors' struggle and so that our children do not have to struggle, said Ben, 25, as he filed into the Sedaka polling station in Juba on 9 January 2011, the first day of the Southern Sudan referendum. Ten years ago it was almost impossible to imagine that Southern Sudan would one day, not only be at peace, and in receipt of multi-billion-dollar oil revenues, but on the cusp of independence.

Since Sudan's warring government and Southern rebels signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the date--9 January 2011--has shimmered on the horizon, offering the ultimate goal of independence. And as the day arrived in Juba, the Southern Sudan capital, many voters forsook sleep in favour of being the first in line around midnight at the polling centre, drinking and chatting through the early hours.

By first light, it was pleasantly warm and lines of voters, orderly and excited, snaked around the building. As is familiar around the world, primary school polling centres offer an incongruous clash between cartoon animals and timetables, and the formal machinery of voting. Staff wearing official yellow bibs were positioned around the room to guide voters; check registration cards; explain the voting slip; and man the ballot box.

The authorities recruited 1,000 extra police to man the polling stations around the city, ensuring tight security. Here at Sedaka, a few dozen lanky young police recruits in new tiger-stripe uniforms perched in the shade, cradling batons and shiny new rifles, while the familiar smartly-dressed plainclothes security men loitered watchfully.

The national drive to educate the public on how to vote and draw in local observers had paid off, as each polling centre was well staffed and each person queuing had their registration card allowing them to vote.

A few minutes past 8am, the queue began to shuffle in. At the centre of the room stood the regulation cardboard voting booth with a yellow curtain to provide anonymity; somewhat unnecessary, because the first person who emerged from it beamed and bore aloft his voting slip with a smudged thumbprint next to the "open hand" symbol, representing secession.

For those lined up, they were preparing to make a definitive personal statement on how they judged the successfulness of 54 years of a united Sudan.

And there was no doubt among the crowd as to what the will of the people was. Abraham, 29, explained: "I became a fighter at 12 years old. I did not know why I was fighting. Now, all these years later, I know and we all know what we have been fighting for."

According to Antony, 46: "In 1956, on the eve of independence, our leaders asked for time to consider unity with the North, we were never given that time, now we are seeing the consequence. We cannot live in peace with the North."

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Across the South, it was impossible to find anyone untouched by the decades of war. A cursory enquiry into the experiences of the "man in the street", revealed a litany of suffering. Often people had witnessed the killing of family or neighbours; spent their adolescence suffering hardship as guerrilla fighters, or being forced to trek endlessly in search of an elusive safe haven.

For the survivors of conflict, the burden of such traumas will be carried to the grave. …