Southern Sudanese carry high hopes, many challenges as independence vote nears

By Rebecca Hamilton
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 11:49 AM

WARRAP STATE, SOUTHERN SUDAN - Aguek Deng is the only doctor at the government hospital in Kuajok, southern Sudan's newest state capital.

Servicing nearly 1 million people, the hospital ward has just 11 beds, none of which has a mattress. The on-site pharmacy boasts mainly acetaminophen and vitamins; Deng says injections for pain relief, pneumonia and malaria run out too quickly.

In the ward, Atong Akol, who says she doesn't know how old she is but who looks to be about 15, sits on the edge of a bed frame. In front of her lies her 10-day-old daughter, Akot, who Deng thinks has "some kind of infection." The odds are stacked against her survival; according to the United Nations, one in six children in southern Sudan die before they reach their first birthday.

The state of health services in Kuajok is indicative of health services across southern Sudan, an area the size of Texas that is likely to become the world's newest nation next year. On Jan. 9, southern Sudanese will vote in a referendum that will mark the final stage of a 2005 peace agreement that ended 22 years of war between the Sudanese government in the mainly Muslim north and rebels based in the mainly Christian and animist south. Southern Sudanese are widely expected to choose independence, freeing themselves from the rule of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

If the vote goes as expected, southern Sudanese will be starting their nationhood under inauspicious circumstances.

"After decades of brutal war, poverty, neglect and the displacement of millions of its people, southern Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed regions of the world," said Louis Belanger of the anti-poverty group Oxfam. "It is being built almost from scratch and needs the support of the rest of the world to help provide development and security."

The United Nations has compiled a set of "Scary Statistics" to illustrate the problem: 90 percent of the south's roughly 10 million people live on less than $1 a day; one in six women die in pregnancy; and barely one-quarter of girls attend primary school.

But many southerners say their lives will improve radically after the referendum.

"At the grass-roots level, the belief is that after independence they will have roads, schools and hospitals" said community organizer Druini Jakani.

Oil money

Many believe oil will be their savior.

"After the referendum it will be okay here because we will have our own budget from the oil," said Deng, voicing a common refrain.

"People are expecting very quick development of the south because they believe the problem until now is that the oil wealth has been in the hands of Khartoum," said Edmund Yakini from the pro-democracy group Sunde. "Up to now there is no one who has been engaged in expectations management. It's a huge risk."

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