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Southern Sudanese prepare for nationhood

Garang Yai was 7 when government soldiers burned down his village, forcing him to flee to Ethiopia, a three-month walk that many of his fellow refugees didn’t survive.

One of the famous “Lost Boys,” Yai eventually found refuge in the United States. Now a U.S. citizen, he lives in Virginia and works as a university custodian.

Photos: Independence celebration

Yai, 31, flew back to Sudan this week to celebrate an occasion that has drawn thousands of exiles like him: the independence of the Republic of South Sudan after a generations-long war that left more than 2 million people dead.

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“Our long suffering is ending and we’re becoming a nation,” Yai said. “I can’t believe it’s happening.”

The raising of the new country’s flag Saturday is the result of a referendum in which southern Sudanese, who are mostly Christian and animist, voted overwhelmingly to secede from the mainly Muslim and Sudanese Arab north.

In the southern capital, Juba, the streets were crawling this week with foreign officials and the trucks of Western aid organizations. The government is scrambling to accommodate an influx of dignitaries, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, more than two dozens heads of state and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who helped broker a 2005 peace deal between north and south.

Just last week, the government installed runway lights at the Juba airport so flights can land after sundown. Throughout the city, security forces have been setting up frequent roadblocks and doing weapons sweeps, and the streets are full of soldiers armed with automatic weapons.

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“The issue of terrorism is a concern everywhere,” said John Luk Jok, minister of legal affairs. “We don’t want to leave things to chance.”

Streets were being swept, buildings whitewashed. In schools, children were practicing the national anthem, as were lawmakers at the parliament building, memorizing the words, repeating them over and over as they studied lyric sheets. Soon, currency and passports will circulate bearing the emblems of the new republic.

Yai said creating a culture of peace and order will be a major, long-term challenge.

When he arrived Wednesday at Juba airport’s one-room terminal, he was among hundreds of people briefly trapped when an official closed the exit to prevent more people from entering. It was opened again when another official gave the go-ahead.

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“The people who were fighting in the bush, they’ve never been in administration,” Yai said. “If one gets mad, he tries to use the military way. We need our leaders to be trained. It will take a couple decades.”

The new country will be about the size of France with an estimated population of 8 million to 10 million. It has only a few dozen miles of paved roads, mostly in the capital. With few doctors or skilled birth attendants, it has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, according to U.N. statistics. It also has one of the lowest primary school enrollments in the world, the U.N. says.

“Everything is a priority in South Sudan,” said Siddhartha Shrestha, UNICEF spokesman in Juba.

As independence day loomed, Lasu Erasto Ladu, 58, a white-bearded chief with the Kakau tribe, was practicing traditional tribal dances with his family for the celebration.

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“Independence is what we were yearning for all our lives,” said Ladu, who fought northern soldiers and was captured in 1992. To describe his experience as a prisoner, he held out his left hand to show a deformed fingernail. “My fingernail was plucked during torture,” he said.

Ladu worries that there are too few opportunities for young people, even for those who are returning from the West with advanced degrees. “Where to employ them?” he asked.

The borders between north and south and a formula for dividing ample oil revenue are still not settled. With recent fighting in the disputed Abyei region, Ladu is concerned that northern President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir is pushing the two sides toward war.

Bashir is expected to attend the independence ceremony, a powerful symbolic gesture to southern Sudanese that their longtime enemy has blessed the secession. Salva Kiir, president of the south, has called publicly for forgiveness.

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Among the relatively few Americans doing business here is Deng Leek, 41, another native of southern Sudan, who said he was looking forward to witnessing a rare event: the birth of a new nation.

Leek left for the United States at age 18 on a basketball scholarship and eventually toured with the Harlem Globetrotters.

He returned to Juba in 2004. He has a wife and son in the U.S., but said he feels he owes a debt to his homeland. He now owns De’Havana Lounge, a popular restaurant and nightclub. He plans to run for office someday, and to set an example, he says he would not ask for a salary.

“The southern Sudanese, this is what they’ve been fighting for. They’re no longer suppressed, no longer controlled by other human beings,” Leek said.

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As he prepared for the ceremonies Saturday, he said, “I’m going to keep myself busy so I don’t get emotional.”

Photos: Independence celebration

christopher.goffard@latimes.com


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