The Rev. Peter Lual gathered his flock of Sudanese exiles in the parking lot of a Denny’s restaurant in suburban San Diego.
Before him stood former guerrillas and farmers, some bearing the intricate facial scars that are a badge of manhood among the major tribes of southern Sudan. Others were students and teachers before they were swept up in the bloodshed of one of Africa’s worst civil wars.
They stood together in a circle to pray as traffic droned by and diners walked past on a cloudy Saturday morning.
“Our father, almighty God,” Lual intoned. “We are your people, the Sudanese. … Lead us to peace.”
Ahead of them was a six-hour drive to cast their votes in a referendum to determine whether their mostly Christian and animist homeland will break away from the Muslim-dominated north and form a new nation.
“For the first time, my country is giving me a voice,” said Tereckah Najuwani, 25, who fled with her family to Uganda in 1993, eventually settling in the United States. “I can’t miss this.”
Najuwani drove from Los Angeles, where she works at a photography studio, to join the caravan east to the nearest polling station in Glendale, Ariz., just outside Phoenix. They gathered in San Diego, where hundreds of Sudanese have made new lives, many as security guards and hotel workers.
Among the group of 30, most had left their homeland more than a decade ago. They speak in American accents, and some have become citizens here. But they dream of returning home to help build a new country in a region riven by poverty, illiteracy, disease and tribal rivalries.
They piled into vans clutching coffees and breakfast sandwiches. Joseph Jok, a refugee case manager driving the lead vehicle, crossed himself and put on a CD of Dinka warrior songs.
“It’s a historic moment,” Jok said. "…a final ticket to liberty.”
More than 30,000 southern Sudanese refugees have settled across the United States since the war broke out in 1983, claiming 2 million lives before a 2005 peace treaty. They started arriving in California in the early 1990s, most settling in San Diego, where community leaders estimate the population to be about 1,000.
For those who only knew life in some of the least developed regions of Africa, the transition was a struggle. John Kuek, 41, grew up in a small village and spent years living in tents in refugee camps.
“Everything in the U.S. was new to me,” he said. A resettlement agency furnished an apartment for him and bought food. The first night he did not eat because he could not figure out how to use the stove.
“We used to cook using firewood. That’s all I knew,” said Kuek, board chairman of the Southern Sudanese Community Center of San Diego. Fewer than a third of the southern Sudanese in the U.S. registered to take part in the referendum. Mistrust in the process ran high at first. There were worries that the Sudanese government, based in the northern city of Khartoum, would steal votes to hold on to the oil-rich south. News that the ballots would be counted at the sites where they were cast when the weeklong voting finishes Saturday eased those fears.
But only eight cities had polling sites, all with larger southern Sudanese populations than San Diego. Those living in California would have to travel — first to register and again to vote.
The San Diego community center, which helped mobilize 149 voters, borrowed three vans from churches to take people to Arizona. Others volunteered to drive people in their own cars. Passengers contributed what they could for food and gas.
Shortly after 10 a.m. last Saturday, the first convoy was on its way. In the lead van, Mary Wari asked her fellow travelers about the voting procedures and the symbols on the ballot: two clasped hands for unity and one raised hand for secession.
“It’s my first time, and I don’t want to be confused,” said Wari, 37, a gospel singer from the southern capital, Juba. During the war, shrapnel pierced her arm as she was drinking tea in front of her home one morning.
“It came down just like the rain,” she said.
Agnes Hassan, 41, passed around a cellphone text message she received from a cousin in southern Sudan. A play on the Lord’s Prayer, it read: “Give us in this country our daily peace and right. Forget those who have been oppressing us since 1819. Lead us NOT into UNITY!”
Hassan, who wore a red USC Trojans jacket on the trip, said there were family members she had not seen since a shell slammed into their home in 1989, sending people running in all directions. Her father vanished after the explosion, but it was too dangerous to go back to search for him.
“We are scattered all over the world,” she said, “so I hope we will meet again in southern Sudan.”
The caravan stopped for lunch at a Carl’s Jr. in the desert town of Yuma. The large and boisterous group, speaking in a mix of English, Arabic and several African languages, drew curious looks from the handful of diners. Overwhelmed servers had to take orders twice.
As they rolled on through the cactus-studded desert, the passengers’ thoughts drifted back to their journeys that led them to this dusty stretch of highway.
Jok, the lead driver, recalled shelling so intense he would sleep under his bed. When he was 15, his best friend was captured by Sudanese government forces. Three days later, the boy’s mutilated body was found.
Jok was determined to join the rebels fighting for independence from the country’s Islamic rulers, but his mother pleaded with him to leave the south and go to school. By the time he completed his studies in Egypt, it was too dangerous to return. He waited years to be resettled in the U.S.
“I am 43,” Jok said, “and this is my first time to vote.”
In the vans and cars heading east, excitement about voting was mixed with anxiety about what independence would mean and how they could help their homeland.
Although the south generates nearly 500,000 barrels of oil a day, about 80% of the country’s output, the pipeline that carries the crude to export terminals and refineries runs through the north. There are few experienced administrators and little infrastructure outside Juba.
“The south has been neglected,” said Deng Bol, who is working as a Starbucks barista while studying to become a lawyer. “As soon as I finish my studies, I will go back and help rebuild the nation.”
He hopes to teach constitutional law.
Bol, who guesses he is about 34, was five hours behind the main caravan from San Diego. He had been delayed by a birthday celebration for those like him who were separated from their parents as children, then made their own way across their war-torn homeland to camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Many of the children — who became known as Lost Boys, after the orphans in the story “Peter Pan” — do not know when they were born. So immigration authorities assigned them the date of Jan. 1.
Bol and his roommate, another Lost Boy, begged time off work and rented a car to get to Phoenix for the vote. Like thousands of other boys, they lived because they were away from their homes tending cattle when their villages were attacked.
During their flight, the children were ambushed by soldiers and bandits, picked off by wild animals or overcome by hunger, thirst and disease. They survived on wild fruit and water scooped from the ground, said Bol, who was about 10 at the time. At night, they slept in trees to escape the lions they heard roaring in the darkness.
Bol spent more than three years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before a change in government forced the children back into Sudan. When they were crossing the River Gilo to return to Sudan, Ethiopian militiamen opened fire on them. Bol was lucky. He knew how to swim. He saw other boys swept away by the swollen river or swallowed by crocodiles.
For months the survivors wandered south toward Kenya, arriving at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in 1992. Bol remained there until 2004, when he was offered the chance to resettle in the United States.
For Bol, the referendum is critical.
“The long journey is almost coming to an end,” he said. “All of our suffering has to stop here.”
It was after dark when the first cars from San Diego pulled into the Arizona Lost Boys Center in Phoenix.
Jubilant community members embraced the weary travelers. Inside the center, Lost Boys playing dominos and cards were shooed aside so visitors could sit.
“We are glad that you managed to come back and throw that last bullet … to see our freedom,” said William Pay Tuoy Giel, who heads the southern Sudanese community in Phoenix.
Families opened up their homes to the carloads of voters arriving from California, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico. Conversations stretched into the early hours of the morning as people caught up with friends and relatives they had last seen in Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia.
After a few hours of sleep, the men put on their best suits and ties. Jok fastened a pin of the late rebel leader John Garang and an American flag to the lapel of his tweed jacket. Women wore long cotton gowns and head scarves in bold African prints — the intricate stitching on some marked the day as a special occasion. They started lining up an hour before voting opened at 9 a.m. at St. James Roman Catholic Parish in Glendale.
The sun beat down on them, but no one seemed to mind the wait. Community organizers passed out soft drinks and voters swapped news about the balloting at home.
“My son called,” said Paulino Paida, who chaired a referendum education committee in San Diego. “There is jubilation across the globe among southern Sudanese, and there is high expectation that people are going to vote for secession.”
Inside the church, election officials working for the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, which was assisted overseas by the International Organization for Migration, checked voter registration cards and made sure everyone understood the process.
After dropping her ballot in the box, Hassan raised an ink-stained finger and ululated with joy.
“When someone is sitting on your back, you have to pull him off,” she said.
When they had voted, the Californians unfurled the flag of southern Sudan and gathered for a group photograph.
Someone grabbed an empty jerrycan and started hitting it with a stick. Another man brought a drum. Soon, a circle of dancers formed around them. Leaping and stomping, they celebrated to the beat of a distant land.
“Bye-bye, Khartoum,” they sang. “Bye-bye, Khartoum.”