They walked in their best clothes past villages and down dirt roads until they came to the church to fold away the pain of war and redraw the map of Africa in a referendum that began Sunday on independence for southern Sudan.
They carried walking sticks and memories of those lost in decades of bloodshed to a polling station to mark a moment in history and begin a chance for reinvention in one of the poorest corners of the continent. They cast their ballots as a children’s choir sang from a radio and a goat- skin drum thumped in the distance.
“This ends our slavery at the hands of the Arabs,” said Kasimiro Mogga Joseph, a priest at the All Saints Roman Catholic Church. “The Arabs considered us animals. They wanted this land but not its people. Being a priest, you feel the difficulties of your parishioners. They came to us crying and suffering during the war. We took them to hospitals and gave them hope.”
Nearly 4 million mostly Christian and animist southern Sudanese are expected to vote overwhelmingly over the next week to secede from the predominately Muslim and Sudanese Arab-led north. The anticipated outcome — final results will be announced in early February — would divide Africa’s largest nation and officially close a civil war that claimed 2 million lives before a 2005 peace treaty.
Those at the threshold of the world’s newest country were joyous, dancing and singing in the southern capital, Juba, and waving banners across deserts and bushlands dotted with thatched huts and cattle herds. Posters depicting Jesus, guerrilla heroes and Salva Kiir, president of the semiautonomous south, urged voters to choose independence over a unified Sudan.
It was a day to savor, not to reflect on the precarious future awaiting a south where disease and malnutrition are widespread and 80% of the population illiterate. According to the humanitarian group Oxfam, a 15-year-old girl here has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than finishing her primary-school education.
Fears that the voting would ignite another round of heavy fighting between northern and southern armies have eased in recent weeks. Minor clashes broke out over the weekend between Muslim and Christian tribesmen along the disputed, oil-rich border near Abyei, leaving five people dead. Thousands of southern soldiers and police patrolled polling stations as voters, some holding umbrellas, stood for hours in the sun.
“I arrived here at 4 a.m. and still I have not voted,” said one man. “I will come back tonight and camp out to make sure I get to vote tomorrow.”
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, facing pressure from Washington and Europe not to return to war, has said he would accept the results of the referendum. But in comments broadcast Saturday, Bashir, who is wanted on charges of war crimes in the western Sudanese region of Darfur, said the south “does not have the ability to provide for its citizens or create a state or authority.”
The statement was political venom from a leader whose pleas for a unified Sudan — one ruled by Islamic law — were largely ignored by Christians who for years complained of discrimination. But even as visits from former U.S. President Carter and George Clooney offered a sense of hope, the problems of the south could be seen in children selling charcoal in the dust and women with hammers breaking rocks for gravel roads.
The south’s legacy of colonialism, ethnic hatred and destitution can be glimpsed along the narrow paths of Mugoro that wind below the tin roof of All Saints Church. Italian and Austrian missionaries battled malaria as they built the church in 1919. War soon whirled around All Saints: Months before British and Egyptian rule of Sudan ended in 1956, north and south began what would become generations of fighting.
Above the pews are bullet-shattered windows. There has been no money to fix all that has been broken in a parish of villages that need running water, electricity, schools and clinics. Many with diphtheria, headaches, pneumonia and other ailments rely on Laura Keji, a medicine woman who roams the forest near Lungwi Mountain searching for roots, leaves and bark to grind into potions.
“This vote for independence is a day of fulfillment,” said James Lodu, a priest at All Saints who travels a territory of 60 miles to say Mass at seven other chapels. “We had to fight for our identity. Now, we have to build a nation. The churches will bring the needs of the people to the new government. We’ll be talking reality, not just out of the blue. We need health services and to improve agriculture. We are farming with hoes; we want machines.”
Lodu waved to a lanky soldier with a gun and said: “Every one of us lost dear ones in the war, from bullets wounds, disease, hunger, snake bites, hiding in the jungle. It came down to good or back luck. But now it’s too late for the north to interfere. They should ‘let the water flow.’”
North and south may break apart politically but will be, at least temporarily, bound by nature and need. The south, governed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, generates 80% of the country’s oil output. But it needs northern-controlled pipelines to reach the shipping ports on the Red Sea. The two sides now share oil revenues, a pact that could be rewritten in coming years.
“I’ve been waiting for 20 years to cast this ballot,” said Martin Laku, who checked the open palm symbol signifying independence instead of the clasped hands for unity. “This freedom will improve our land. It will change my life. Businesses and factories will come, and I will get a job.”
Sidonia Rose chewed a stalk of sugar cane after she voted. She was 13 when northern soldiers and militias trundled away and peace came to the villages. She carried a survivor’s aspirations and a young woman’s anger: “During the war, the Arabs held the nation. They slaughtered our men and women like goats. Many in my family died. My father was beaten until he stopped breathing.”
The priests hurried for Mass. The voting line grew. Sephriana Keji slipped her ballot into a plastic box and dipped her finger in ink. She stepped past police and voting officials and wandered toward the road beyond the church, where children drew water from a well and grazing lands had been blackened by fires to refresh the soil.
“With this freedom, we must forgive those who abused us,” she said. “We must free our hearts.”