Southern Sudanese in Washington area, across world prepare to vote on separation

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 10:47 PM

Angelos Agok strode into a low-slung building in Old Town Alexandria on Sunday, hoping to help give birth to a new country.

"The dawn is already here," said the 42-year-old Silver Spring resident as he joined southern Sudanese people across the world in registering for a Jan. 9 vote on whether to separate from northern Sudan and become an independent nation.

The referendum marks the final stage of a 2005 peace agreement that ended 22 years of war between the Khartoum-based 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, separating themselves from the rule of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

The Obama administration, which came to office promising stronger leadership on Sudan, has worked to safeguard the peace accord and prevent a return to civil war, sending a former ambassador this summer to help with negotiations on the referendum.

Amid charges of voter intimidation and other pre-election problems, the leader of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, which is organizing the vote, was reported to have requested a three-week delay, although this weekend the vote appeared to be following its planned schedule.

Nonetheless, those who turned out to register on Sunday were optimistic about the vote and its outcome.

Agok, who said he was a soldier with the Sudan People's Liberation Army from 1986 to 2000, never expected he would live to see independence. "Self-determination is what we fought for," he said, "and that is what is happening right now."

Many who have flocked to register at the commission's centers came to the United States as refugees, fleeing decades of war. The Alexandria site, one of three that have opened in the United States so far, has drawn vanloads of people from across the eastern United States. Voters can also register in seven other countries outside Sudan, and, in response to strong interest, five additional U.S. locations are set to open Monday.

An area the size of Texas, home to around 8 million people, southern Sudan is staggeringly poor, but its territory includes the bulk of Sudan's oilfields. In a region where vote-rigging has been rampant and the north and south have traded accusations of improprieties, the referendum is being overseen by international monitors. Some fear disruptions during or after the voting, and the United Nations may send in additional peacekeeping troops.

Estimates of how many southern Sudanese live in the United States range between 25,000 and 50,000, with the largest community in Nebraska. Around 1,000 live in Washington and surrounding areas.

For the referendum to be valid, more than 60 percent of those who register around the world must return to vote, which, for many in the United States, means two separate long-distance journeys.

At the Alexandria site, in a rented building, southern Sudanese greeted one another with handshakes and broad smiles, while a security guard sitting in a car out front provided a stark reminder of the rocky path toward independence.

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