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As South Sudan clears another milestone for independence, its capital booms

South Sudan's capital, Juba, is exploding with new construction, incoming foreign residents and new embassies.

By Maggie FickCorrespondent / January 31, 2011

South Sudanese celebrate the announcement of preliminary referendum results in the southern capital of Juba on Sunday, Jan. 30. Referendum officials indicated that nearly 99 percent of all voters cast ballots in favor of southern independence.

Pete Muller/AP

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Juba, South Sudan

In less than six months, a new nation will be born in a particularly volatile corner of Africa. The capital of this Texas-sized territory is the upstart boomtown of Juba which, like many other institutions in Southern Sudan, is about six years old – as old as the 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of conflict between Sudan’s north and south, and that left the south’s already meager pre-war institutions and infrastructure in complete tatters.

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Before it started shaping up to be the world’s newest capital, Juba had hung on as a garrison town occupied by the northern Sudanese army for much of the civil war. Evidence of the conflict – bullet holes in the few colonial era relics and rusted tanks on the outskirts of town – are only partially fading into the background as the “new Juba” is built on top of the ruins.

The result across the capital is a hodgepodge – a schizophrenic reality, where barefoot, filthy children live amid heaps of trash in what used to be a cemetery a few hundred feet from prime Nile River-side “cottages” that cost more than $4,000 to rent per month.

These apartments are little more than dressed-up plastic containers, a common sight in Juba. Some American diplomats, the entire staff of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, many aid workers, and government officials alike live and work in the rectangular white plastic structures.

At first glance, these “containers” seem to signal skepticism that the recent years of “fragile peace” will yield permanent, investment-friendly stability. On second thought, one reason for importing thousands of plastic boxes instead of building brick and mortar structures is that getting materials into the South is a daunting endeavor. Import/export business is only just beginning to get easier as more miles of roads are paved and as a US government-funded project forges the south’s first highway, leading to markets in Uganda.

Gaps between rich and poor in urban areas are common the world over. The contrast, however, between the nouveau riche of South Sudan – namely government officials, high-ranking members in the south’s ruling party, and their families – and the everyday South Sudanese mother or tea seller on the street is hard to miss in this small but rapidly growing city, which is becoming conspicuous for its presence of new consulates and soon-to-be embassies popping up around town.

The Japanese opened a “liaison office” in a plastic container on the Japanese government aid agency’s compound last month. Swedish and South African diplomats are seen about town. The US government has built a multi-story, drab concrete building that provide office space for the staff of its newly “surged” mission. The behemoth, constructed in a flurry in the second half of last year, was rendered windowless for security reasons: it was squeezed into an already overcrowded compound and ended up too close to the road.

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