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.

Elizabeth Kuch, 26, a student from Harrisburg, Pa., who was helping to staff the center, lost her parents and fled Sudan when she was 5. To her, the referendum was "like the end of a journey to me, a long suffering and a long journey where I have lived my life without knowing my country."

Like many of those she was checking in, Kuch said she hoped to move back to help build an independent southern Sudan. "It's like the U.S. when it was becoming a country," she said. "It wasn't an easy ride. There will be a lot of work to be done."

A group from Trenton, N.J., crowded into the building after a four-hour drive, bringing along little girls with elaborately braided hair and a 15-year-old boy in a crisp mauve suit who was three years shy of voting age.

James Bellino, 36, said he was wistful about separating from the north, where he had spent his teenage years. But he said he had no choice but to vote for separation. "They failed to give us our basic rights, and that's why people went to the bush, and that's why we're here today."

With so much at stake, coordinators are vigilant about confirming that would-be registrants are actually southern Sudanese and not from the north.

Approaching the registration table, Agok, the former soldier, held out his Maryland driver's license. The worker asked if he had a Sudanese identification.

"No, I don't have a Sudanese ID," he said. "I'm someone who came to the United States through the bush."

Enter John Dau, who fled the country's civil war and runs a foundation that built a hospital in southern Sudan. Dau is one of several "identifiers" on site for such situations. In the absence of a registrant's Sudanese documents, identifiers ask about family ties and connections in the local southern Sudanese community; they also look for identifying clues such as tribal scars or ask people to describe certain towns in the south.

Dau, who understands many of southern Sudan's 67 languages, sometimes asks people to say a few words in their language; he has barred several people from registering because they could not adequately prove affiliation with the south.

Pulling Agok aside, he said, "All right, do you know your chief, your tribe?"

Agok began listing names, until Dau heard one he knew. "Oh good, you know Angok?"

"Angok stays with me," came the reply. "He's my cousin."

That was good enough. Agok returned to the table, gave his thumbprint, and received a voter card for the January referendum.

"I'm all set," he said, beaming at the prospect of long-sought independence. "I'm a citizen. I'm a southern Sudanese."

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