JUBA, South Sudan — After a 56-year struggle, South Sudan has a country of its own. Thousands upon thousands of people gathered starting early this morning near the memorial for Dr. John Garang, the late rebel leader, where workers have been building and cleaning day and night to ready the dusty open space for the huge celebration. Flag-festooned Range Rovers and Mercedes delivered dozens of heads of states, including Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, to the festivities.
After hours of sitting in the blistering sun, the crowd seemed newly energized – erupting in cheers and chants of “Republic of South Sudan Oyee!” – when President Salva Kiir took to the podium for his first address as the leader of the world’s 193rd country.
“We, the people of South Sudan understand what it means to be a refugee,” said President Kiir. “We hope that our people will never again have to cross our borders again in search of security.”
While the general mood in this new capital has been joyous since the clock struck midnight last night, the traumatic history of this region weighed heavy on the day. Standing near the flagpole where a huge South Sudan flag still laid neatly folded this morning, a middle-aged woman sang hymns with her hands in the air and tears streaming down her face. During the war, people suffered so much that they could not have even imagined that this day was possible, she said.
“If you do not have peace, you have nothing,” said Elia Mellit, a father of three, who arrived at the celebration with his family, all dressed up for the occasion. “Today I am feeling good. For many years, I was not good. Now we have freedom – I am free! So in my heart I have no problems.”
The expectations that accompany this independence day are high, and so too are the obstacles to a lasting peace for the two Sudans. The current crisis in the Nuba Mountains, for instance, and the recent invasion of Abyei tended to be whitewashed during remarks by the long line-up of dignitaries who offered congratulatory wishes and pledges of support. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, for one, chose to mention the unfinished political processes of the Abyei referendum and popular consultations in Blue Nile and Kordofan, rather than pointing a finger at Khartoum’s bombing campaign or ground offensive.
But despite Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s conspicuous presence – which generated a mixture of cheering and booing when his convoy arrived – Salva Kiir did not hesitate to speak about the history of marginalization and state-sponsored violence in Sudan, after “having been on the receiving end of injustice.”
“As we celebrate our independence today, I want to assure the people of Abyei, Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan that we have not forgotten you,” Kiir said as he concluded his speech. “When you cry, we cry. When you bleed, we also bleed. My pledge to you today is that we will find a just peace for all.” He quoted an African proverb that says, ‘However long the night, the dawn will break.’
The independence ceremony itself stretched on for nearly nine hours for the general public, who sat in plastic chairs in the breezeless shade of a fabric cover if they were lucky or, more often, stood on the wide-open dirt area that was formerly the site of a city market. The South Sudan Red Cross was kept busy responding to people – many of them soldiers standing in formation – who collapsed from dehydration and the heat. Heavily armed security services beat back spectators and journalists who moved outside of loosely designated areas.
Even Salva Kiir remarked about the disarray of the day; he prefaced his remarks by apologizing for what he called “the shortcomings in our preparation.” But he added that this event was the biggest they had ever planned. In any case, it was a day that will be “forever engraved in our hearts and minds,” Kiir said, standing below the new South Sudan flag with its yellow star as he urged South Sudanese to go out and enjoy the day. “Let us celebrate today, but we must get to work right away.”
Photos by the Enough Project's Tim Freccia in Juba.