JUBA, Southern Sudan — “I have been waiting a long time for this day,” said a young man named Carter, standing in the intense, early morning sun. “Everyone here has, and we’re going for separation,” he said, gesturing toward the long lines of people around him who turned out to this polling station to vote in the South Sudan referendum on independence.
By the time the polling booths opened at 8 a.m., hundreds of people had lined up in the schoolyard at Bakita primary school here in the southern capital. “We came here at 3 o’clock this morning,” said one elderly man, adding that others started lining up as early as 2 a.m. “I am voting for freedom, and I wanted to be one of the first to vote.”
South Sudan President Salva Kiir cast the symbolic first vote at the grave of revered former SPLM leader John Garang. Wearing his traditional black cowboy hat, President Kiir pressed his inked thumbprint on the ballot for succession to initiate the week-long voting process.
“This is the historic moment the people of southern Sudan have been waiting for,” Kiir told the crowd of diplomats, observers, international journalists, and throngs of Sudanese.
Senator John Kerry, U.S. Special Envoy Scott Gration, actor George Clooney, and Enough Project Co-founder John Prendergast were on hand to show U.S. support for the climactic event of the comprehensive peace process.
President Kiir, Senator Kerry, Clooney, and Prendergast later attended a service at Juba’s cathedral. Senator Kerry, who has been engaged in Sudan’s peace process and represents the U.S. government’s commitment to peace in Sudan, told the congregation the story of Valentino Deng. The subject of the book What is the What, Deng walked hundreds of miles to escape fighting during the civil war with other Lost Boys, finally settling in the U.S.
“Valentino’s walk of thousands of miles ended today as he walked his final one hundred yards to cast his vote for freedom," Senator Kerry said.
Southern Sudanese, displaced across the region and the world by decades of conflict, have been coming home ever since the peace agreement was signed in 2005 that ended the North-South war. The region has seen returns swell in recent weeks as people made the journey – some for good, others to take part in this historic process – to register and then vote for separation or unity. The outcome is all but official, with an overwhelming proportion of southern Sudan’s nearly 4 million registered voters expected to choose separation.
Reuben Taban Gitome moved back to Juba in 2007 after living in Khartoum since 1989, where he fled to “when southern Sudan was in chaos.” Asked about life in Juba since he returned, he didn’t seem to want to sound critical. “Home is home,” he said with a shrug. “Only God knows” whether internal tensions in southern Sudan will be a source of instability when the South is an independent country, he said.
But reports of clashes in the contested area of Abyei and in the strategic southern state of Unity on the eve of the vote were a sobering reminder of the challenges that lay ahead.
Fighting broke out between the Misseryia and the Ngok Dinka in Abyei on Friday and Saturday, and local administrators reported that nine Ngok Dinka were killed. According to a Misseryia leader quoted by Bloomberg, one Misseriya was killed. In the often volatile southern border state of Unity, the SPLA clashed with a local militia controlled by former army officer Gatluak Gai. Southern army spokesman Philip Aguer implicated the northern government in the confrontation, according to McClatchy.
To capture the mood in another strategic part of the South, Enough’s Sudan researcher Mayank Bubna traveled to Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state. He visited a number of polling stations in the city and reported that the voting has been calm. The mood is celebratory, he said, but with an undercurrent of concern that the long anticipated process might be disrupted. One man coming from church said he got in line early this morning to ensure he could vote today. “If some problem happens and the process of voting stops, I want my finger to be counted,” he told Enough.
Most of the stalls in the largest market in Malakal were closed. A northern trader told Enough that the southern shopkeepers closed so that they could vote, and many northerners didn’t open for business because “we’re fearing violence.”
But despite the concerns, Mayank said that the only immediate challenge seemed to be moving voters through the line in a timely way. “People are waiting in line for hours, so when someone needs to leave to get water or use the toilet, they leave a stone in the line to mark their place. A few tiffs broke out when people returned to find that their stones had been moved. But if that ends up being the extent of the tension in this city today, we’re looking at a very successful opening day. There is certainly a greater sense of euphoria than fear.”
Back in Juba, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made the rounds at polling booths, stopping at Bakita primary school to speak to the unprecedented mass of international reporters that has descended on this city. President Carter expressed concern that the largest turnout reported in any northern polling center so far is 37, but he called the first day of voting overall “very orderly, very enthusiastic.”
“I believe this is democracy at its most basic,” Kofi Annan said, “where people are choosing their future and how and by whom they want to be governed. I hope all parties and all of us will respect the results once they’re released. The people are the ultimate authority.”
Carter, the man waiting in line at the Bakita polling center, said his parents named him after the U.S. president who was in office when he was born. He said he felt proud that President Carter, a man he has always admired, was visiting the place where he would cast his vote. “This is the beginning of a new life for me,” Carter said. “We have always been second class citizens in our country. (…) But now, even me, I could run for Parliament."
Matt Brown contributed to this post from Juba.