'The liberators - the SPLA - have captured this place, and there is now peace of mind here. It's a gift of God. The people are coming back home," exults the Rev. Lazarus Mundoya at the packed Christ the King Cathedral. Since Yei fell to the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in March, hundreds of families have begun returning from refugee camps in neighboring Uganda.
The SPLA's capture of Yei, a fertile area in Sudan's southwestern corner, marks a turning point in the Christian rebels' 14-year-old civil war against the Muslim and Arab fundamentalist regime in the north. Now the group is only 40 miles outside the southern capital, Juba, and is advancing from several fronts.
Sudan's civil war has been overshadowed by the high-profile conflict going on in neighboring Zaire.
"I believe it's the most significant victory in the south to date," said John Garang, leader of the SPLA in an interview here. "Yei is pivotal to the whole war situation.... It was the main battle. I believe the war in the south is over. There is nothing that the regime will do, or can do, to reverse this. We are confident that we will indeed capture Juba and not only that, we will bring down the whole regime. That is the final target."
At Loka, 20 miles north of Yei, villagers welcomed the defeat of the government's forces, which they viewed as an army of occupation.
In their bid to drain the countryside of support for the rebels, government soldiers forced thousands of people into government-run "peace camps," where food was short and conditions harsh. Victor Tereka Wani, a survivor, says his five children died in the peace camp at Loka.
"The Arabs are not our people," he says. "Here I had no food, no clothes, no blanket, no mosquito net, and no tools. Most of us are Christians, but many converted to the Islamic faith [just] because [Muslims] were given food and work."
Many people in southern Sudan fled into the hills or deep into the bush to escape the government roundups. After news of the SPLA's arrival and victory, many emerged. Last week, the SPLA captured Rumbek, 250 miles northwest of Yei. And on Sunday, Mr. Garang claimed his rebels had captured Tonj. But the war is no longer confined to the south.
Facing increasing repression from the fundamentalist Muslim government in Khartoum, the SPLA entered into a marriage of convenience with other northern opposition groups two years ago and formed the Northern Democratic Alliance. In recent months NDA forces, with bases in Eritrea and Ethiopia, have scored a number of incremental military victories in the Red Sea area in the northeast.
Behind the rebels' success is a growing amount of sympathy and active support from neighboring countries. Often called Africa's "forgotten war," the isolated conflict - in which about 1.5 million southern Sudanese have died - is now a regional issue.
Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda have all been alienated by the aggressive, fundamentalist policies pursued by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his regime's spiritual leader, Hassan al-Turabi. They accuse the two of trying to export a militant brand of Islam and causing other troubles. The United States has also accused Sudan of sponsoring Islamic terrorist groups. Armed by Iran, Iraq, and Libya, Khartoum has imposed Islamic law at home and sought to destabilize its non-Muslim neighbors. It accuses Uganda and Eritrea of leading a foreign invasion of its soil.
The government, meanwhile, has launched a new public-relations offensive in Khartoum, where the continuation of the southern war is increasingly unpopular. Last month, it signed a peace treaty with five splinter rebel groups from the south, only one of which is known to control any territory. President Bashir declared that the treaty would lead to a referendum on the future of the south and would "solve all the problems."
The SPLA says it is fighting for a new, democratic Sudan where there is no racial, religious, or gender discrimination. However, many southerners believe that the ultimate answer to the problem of northern Arab domination is independence for the south.