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After Decades of War, Southern Sudan’s Referendum Inspires Hope of a Better Life


Juba, Sudan — Pots and pans stacked on top of an empty bed frame are among the few possessions Teresa Peter brought with her to start a new life. Her family is originally from a remote area of southern Sudan, but she grew up in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.

“We heard people say that Sudan is separating into north and south, and if we stayed we would get stuck up there,” she said. “Everyone is trying to get back.”

On Sunday, southern Sudanese begin voting in a weeklong referendum in which they are widely expected to opt to secede from the north and form a new nation. Divorce is usually a messy business, and Teresa Peter is one of those stuck in the middle of Sudan’s big split up.

Fearing being cut off forever from a homeland she barely knows, Peter, her husband, and their kids took most of their life savings and bought passage on a barge from Khartoum — where she had lived her entire life — to Juba, Sudan’s southern capital, which she had never seen.

Sitting now amidst the material remnants of her old life, she begins nursing one of her children as a swarm of flies buzz on and off her feet, a courtesy of ad hoc piles of trash strewn nearby. Her husband stands idly by, dressed in a soiled orange body suit he wore as an assistant builder in Khartoum.

“Life in Khartoum was difficult. Some days he would come find work and come home with money, others days we would have nothing,” she said.

Peter’s journey to Juba is being repeated thousands of times as southern Sudanese flock back to their homeland after years of absence from a war-torn region where a civil war that began in 1983 ended six years ago in a U.S.-brokered peace deal.

It was a conflict born from racial, religious, political, and economic grievances, divided chiefly along Sudan’s mostly southern African tribes and Sudan’s northern Arabs who have dominated Sudan’s government since independence.

In the 1990s, the war escalated, as Sudan’s new Islamist government declared a holy war against the southern rebels. In a pre-cursor to tactics later employed in Darfur, Arab and southern tribal militias were used to raze southern Sudan’s civilian base, forcing southerners to flee into government-controlled towns or flee altogether.

Where Teresa Peter is from, on the border with northern Sudan, the easiest place to go was northward, into the belly of the enemy. Many others were taken north as captives, forced into slavery. Those who risked flight south or east became refugees in Kenya, Uganda, or Ethiopia, if they survived. Some two million are thought to have died in the conflict.

Now, everyone expects southern Sudanese to choose independence in the referendum. Secessionist sentiment is nearly universal, and the little scattered polling and focus group data that does exist suggests the final tally will find more than 95 percent of voters favor separation.

On the eve of the vote, ecstatic anticipation grips Juba, where signs are the final rallies call the vote southerners’ “final walk to freedom.” Elsewhere, the vote has been symbolized by two handcuffed fists breaking free from their shackles.

Still, the challenges ahead are monumental.

More than 120,000 southerners living in the north have returned to the south in recent months, according to the United Nations. Like Peters, they’ve come with almost nothing, to destinations not much better off than those they left. Some are going to their ancestral villages, but others, like Peter’s and her family, have decided that after years of city slum life, such a transition is asking too much.

“My husband said this will be the center of the new country, so we came here so he can get a job,” Peter said.

For 31 days, they have camped with a handful of other returnees on Juba’s port on the White Nile, less than a hundred yards from where they disembarked. They ran through their measly savings before reaching the end of their journey, meaning the pile of possessions is all they have left.

“We’ve been living out of the hands of others,” she said, nursing an infant as two other children looked on.

Life in Juba is expensive, due in part to the artificial boom of aid dollars and foreign presence, but also because almost all goods must be imported; the war destroyed all industry here.

Life elsewhere in southern Sudan also will be difficult. The country is the size of France, but it has no paved roads to connect its towns and cities. Its terrain is a mixture of swamp, floodplains and dense tropical forest. Development is near nil. Fewer than 5 percent of the population attended grade school during the war, and infant mortality rates hover around 10 percent across much of the region.

“Poverty levels are high, life is very hard,” said Melinda Young, head of aid agency Oxfam in southern Sudan. “The issues that hinder people’s daily lives in southern Sudan will continue over for the next several years or more, regardless of whatever the political result of the current process is.”

After the hardship they have known so far, the long road ahead does not look nearly as steep to southerners as it may from the outside. Stability, if achieved, means development that, even if slow, is a welcome start. And they expect help: most of Sudan’s half a billion barrels a day of oil production comes from the south, which should fall into the new southern state’s hands following secession.

The government, led by former rebels, has promised to use the funds to invest in agriculture and infrastructure. Such a policy would require a change in current trends. During the six-year peace period, most of budget went to the military.

Peter remains optimistic.

“I’m happy here. It’s not like the north. Here we are welcome, and my children are free to do what they want,” she said.

“Once my husband gets a job, we will move into a home. And then we can start again.”

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.)

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