By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 8:50 AM
After a long and bloody civil war, and after decades of sectarian and ethnic animosities, the mood in this southern capital was electric.
Before dawn, large crowds stood in long snaking lines outside polling stations. Amid heavy security, they sang and danced, chanting such lyrics as, "We are here to thank God today."
"We have been waiting for this day all our lives," said Suzy John, 28, a businesswoman who was waiting in line at the mausoleum of John Garang, the south Sudan rebel leader who died several years ago in a helicopter crash. "It means self determination, freedom, hope for the future and hope for the future of our children."
Kur Ayuen Kou, 32, who was among 4 million people displaced by the conflict before he returned to southern Sudan from Australia, said: "This vote is about gaining our freedom. It's about gaining our dignity. It's about ending our slavery."
But the week-long referendum, the last stage in a U.S.-backed peace process that ended the war, will take place under a cloud of uncertainty.
Many issues that will determine the relationship between the north and south remain unresolved, key among them citizenship rights, contentious border areas and the sharing of Sudan's massive oil reserves, the majority of which lie in the south.
The tensions have triggered fears that conflict could erupt again in the months ahead, destabilizing a region where the United States is fighting the rise of Islamic radicalism.
A day before voting began, six people were killed in clashes between southern Sudan's army and rebel militias in an oil-producing region.
An independent southern Sudan would become one of the world's least developed countries, its population among the poorest and most vulnerable, despite receiving nearly $10 billion in oil revenue since 2005. But the region, which is roughly the size of Texas, has few schools, hospitals and paved roads. Illiteracy and malnutrition remain high.
A peaceful vote, and an outcome accepted without dispute, could lay the groundwork for one of the Obama administration's most significant policy successes in Africa. Activists and aid groups have criticized the administration for not being more engaged on the continent and lacking a cohesive policy, especially for Sudan.
On Saturday, U.S. officials arrived in Juba, the southern region's capital, to support the referendum and offer assurances that the United States is committed to southern Sudan's future.
"President Obama has personally invested in Sudan. . .He's briefed every day on what happens here," said J. Scott Gration, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan. "That same commitment will continue after the referendum."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), standing next to Gration, added, "The stability of Sudan is important for all of us, for a world that is becoming increasingly more complicated, increasingly more volatile, increasingly more extreme in various places."
More than 2 million people died in the 22-year-long civil war, which pitted Arab Islamic rulers in the north against the south's animist and Christian rebels.
Since 2005, when a peace treaty was signed, the south has been semiautonomous, ruled by the former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. As a condition of the peace deal, brokered by the George W. Bush administration, the south was guaranteed a vote on independence.
Nearly 3.9 million people have registered to vote, and a turnout of 60 percent is needed for the results to be valid. Tens of thousands of southerners have arrived here from northern Sudan and from around the world to participate, some carrying all their possessions and hoping to resettle in the south.
The killing in southern Sudan, though, hasn't stopped. Last year, at least 900 people died in tribal fighting and 215,000 were displaced, aid groups say. Weapons are widely available, and militias are abundant. Clan rivalries and corruption are rife. And the gulf between light-complexioned Arabs and darker-skinned Africans remains wide.
Only a few months ago, it was unclear whether the referendum would take place as scheduled. Nearly 80 percent of Sudan's oil is in the south, and few believed Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir would ever allow the south to gain independence. Southern leaders and U.S. officials accused Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party of arming militias to destabilize the south in order to delay the vote. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called south Sudan "a ticking time bomb."
Four months ago, the Obama administration stepped up its engagement with Bashir, offering him incentives, including the possibility that the United States would remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism if a timely referendum took place.
Bashir, who came to power in a bloodless military coup in 1989, is facing pressure from outside and inside Sudan. The International Criminal Court has indicted him on genocide charges, accusing him of orchestrating ethnic cleansing in the western region of Darfur. Both Washington and the United Nations have imposed economic sanctions on Sudan. Clashes between Bashir's army and rebels in Darfur have intensified in recent months.
But Bashir and other senior officials appear to have accepted that the south's secession is unavoidable, breaking from party hard-liners who want to keep the south at any cost. Last week, Bashir declared he would be "the first to recognize the south" if voters chose to create their own country.
In an interview Saturday, Kerry said he believes the likelihood of conflict, while still a concern, has diminished.
An independent and mostly Christian south Sudan also would allow Bashir to fulfill a long-held vision of enshrining Islamic sharia law in the constitution, making Islam the north's official religion and Arabic its official language.
One flash point is the oil-producing border region of Abyei. The south claims it as its own, but the north wants part of it. Tribal militias aligned with both sides live in a tense coexistence, tussling over land, water and grazing areas.
"If you don't resolve Abyei and you don't have some kind of a solution for the border, you risk continuing a sort of low-intensity conflict along the border, which could spiral out of control," said Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank. A separate referendum for Abyei on whether to join the north or the south has been postponed as leaders work on reaching a compromise.
Nationality is also an issue. It is unclear whether dual citizenship will be allowed between the north and south. If not, many analysts fear that northerners living in the south and southerners living in the north could face targeted attacks or be stripped of their citizenship. That could trigger displacements that would add more stress on poor communities already facing shortages of food, water and medicine.
"We have an unfolding humanitarian crisis layered on top of an existing and forsaken one," said Susan Purdin, the southern Sudan director for the International Rescue Committee, an American relief agency. "And then there's the potential for mass displacement, an upsurge in political and ethnic violence and a larger-scale humanitarian emergency."
Despite its vast oil revenue, southern Sudan has less than 40 miles of paved road. An estimated 80 percent of adults cannot read or write. Less than half the population has access to clean water; one in 10 children die before their first birthday. The police force is poorly trained, and the judicial system is weak.
"We face many challenges ahead of us," said Zachariah Peter Champail, 40, a teacher. "Tribal rivalries is the fatal disease that could kill us in the south. I hope, by the mercy of God, we can overcome this. We have to sing together in unity."
On Sunday, the voting began under a cloudless sky. The atmosphere was emotional. Aguil Chut Deng, draped in a south Sudanese flag and clutching a large photo of Garang, openly wept as she hugged another voter.
"Today I am proud to become an African woman. No one is ever going to call me an Arab," said Deng, referring to the north's Arab rulers.
Nearby, a tall man in a blue suit screamed with excitement over his cell phone: "I have just voted for our new country."
American and European officials visited polling centers to observed the vote. Actor George Clooney, active in efforts to stop violence in Darfur, also was here.
"We are very excited," Clooney said. "We have to take this victory and accept it because there are so few victories in this area. And this is the biggest one -- a vote for independence. No one thought they would pull this off by January 9th."
But for progress to be sustained, contentious issues such as the disputed border region of Abyei need to be resolved, Clooney added.
Sarah Tong, a 24-year-old biology student at Georgia State University, flew in from Atlanta, even though she did not register to vote.
"I am here to give support," she gushed. "The north will have to accept what happens here. And they will accept it."
As she spoke, a lone woman, carrying a large south Sudan flag, glided across the red earth, blowing a whistle and dancing trance-like, like a leaf swaying in the light wind.
There were also widows of south Sudanese soldiers who arrived to vote. On this day, they said they finally felt that their husbands had not died in vain. Some danced in joy. "They feel like their husbands are here with them," said Chelina Kukwa, 42, a mother of 7 who lost her husband in the civil war.
"We want to win," she said. "We have lost our husbands, brothers, and friends. I want a separate country. We are ready to be on our own."
Others warned there would be unearthly consequences for anyone who dared to vote to remain in a unified Sudan.
"If there's anyone here even thinking of unity, God will make sure that he will die," said Santo Athua, 36, a medical worker for the south Sudanese army. He raised his right thumb, colored in purple, showing that he had voted. "Even if I die today, I know I have done my small part for our next generation. I have voted for separation, and I will sleep peacefully tonight."
He looked towards Garang's grave and softly murmured: "Our martyrs, our heroes, those who sacrificed their lives for our land, can now rest in peace."
Lam Tungwar, 26, a hip-hop musician arrived at the polling center at 2 a.m., draped in a south Sudanese flag over a gray suit and a purple tie.
"This is like independence day. This day is more important than Christmas," he said. "We don't care about the oil or wealth. We only want our lives back."