'I never dreamed this day would come'
IN KWORIJIK BUNGO, SUDAN The villagers of this southern hamlet remember rapes, beatings and killings by the Arab soldiers of the north Sudanese army who set up a military camp here two decades ago. As war broke out, the soldiers torched their huts. The entire village of 200 vanished, its surviving residents fleeing to other parts of Sudan.
But since 2005, when a peace accord was signed to end the long civil war, the villagers of Kworijik Bungo have been trickling back and rebuilding their lives. On Sunday, they voted in a historic referendum on whether to secede from the north, on the very spot where they were persecuted.
Everyone interviewed said they voted for independence. Many saw their vote as a vindication of their suffering, a victory in a part of the world where victories are few.
"I never dreamed this day would come," Jackson Modi Loku, a frail, stooped 65-year-old, said in an emotional, cracking voice after he had voted.
Across this Texas-sized region, southern Sudanese poured into polling stations, patiently casting votes for what many expect will be the creation of the world's newest country. The process was so orderly and organized that American, European and African observers immediately put out statements applauding it, even though it is a week-long exercise in democracy. The Obama administration had pushed hard for a timely referendum.
Amid snaking lines of thousands, there was singing, dancing and praying. There were tears, hugs and kisses. People draped themselves in the south Sudanese flag - green, red, and black with a yellow star. They blew whistles and banged drums. There was an undeniable sense that this vote was a send-off to Sudan's brutally divisive past and a herald of a promising new future. It was a day that many observers said made not just south Sudan, but also an entire continent, proud.
"Fifty-five years of people fighting and dying for their freedom is culminating today," said John Prendergast, a Sudan activist who was visiting a polling center in the southern capital, Juba. "It is a dramatic representation of Africa coming together . . . the people and their voices get to determine the future of a region. That doesn't happen very often in history."
There are still key issues to resolve, including contentious border areas, citizenship rights and how to share revenues from Sudan's vast oil reserves, most of which are in the south. But if the referendum passes, as expected, south Sudan is scheduled to declare independence in July.
'Like a baptism'
In Kworijik Bungo, about 30 miles south of Juba, there was a feeling that a new era of freedom had arrived. Many had wanted a separate nation well before Sudan became independent in 1956 from British rule. The village is a microcosm of southern Sudan, as much a mirror of this region's turbulent history as a harbinger of the challenges a new nation, should it emerge, will face.
"Today is like a baptism for our new country," declared John Pitia, 31, as he ate a traditional meal of beans and sorghum with his wife, Mary, and four children outside their thatched mud hut. "We want to have our own country and leave the Arabs."
He can't forget his childhood. The Arab soldiers were camped less than a hundred yards away. They treated his family as second-class citizens, he said. They beat villagers at will, and killed them if they suspected them of being spies for the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
"They raped our women," said Pitia, the bitterness evident in his voice.