Sheer joy as South Sudanese vote for independence

Many southern residents rose before dawn to get in line for their chance to vote in Sunday's historic referendum on whether semiautonomous South Sudan will secede from Sudan.

Tim McKulka/Reuters
A southern Sudanese voter queues to vote on the first day of polling in the independence referendum in Juba, Sunday. Millions of jubilant south Sudanese started voting on Sunday in a long-awaited independence referendum that is expected to see their war-ravaged region emerge as a new nation.

Joy marked the faces of South Sudanese citizens as they waited in long lines at polling stations throughout this dusty boomtown that, come July, is likely to be the world’s newest capital.

In Juba, many residents rose before dawn to get in line for their chance to vote in this historic referendum on whether semiautonomous South Sudan will secede from Sudan. Others stood in the baking sun for the chance to make the choice of a lifetime. After decades of struggle, emotions of relief, happiness, and excitement abounded among voters.

“I’m very pleased,” says Lino Opula, who was among the southern officers who joined the revolt in the mid-1960s that led to the first north-south civil war. He fought again on the south’s side in the most recent war, which lasted for more than two decades and ended with the 2005 peace deal that promised self-determination for the oil-rich, but long embattled south. Today that promise was fulfilled.

"This is democracy at its most basic, where people are choosing their future, and how and by whom they want to be governed,” said former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in the country with former President Jimmy Carter’s election observation mission.

“It's important that the enthusiasm, the energy, leads to solid results that are expected by everyone,” Mr. Annan said, while women in line to vote behind him ululated spontaneously – a sign of celebration which was a a common occurrence Sunday, the first day of polling.

A few minutes before Annan and Mr. Carter arrived, a southern man had led the hundreds of soon-to-be voters in chants of “hallelujah.”

Long wait comes to an end

“We need freedom in [South Sudan] and surely we will get it,” says Wilma Sereno a bank teller in Juba who earned her accounting degree in the northern capital, Khartoum, during the war.

Ms. Sereno stood in a long line of women young and old, in high heels and flip flops, waiting to enter a polling station in a primary school.

“It’s a good day for us and we have waited so long for it,” Sereno says.

Low turnout in Khartoum

While lines snaked through school courtyards and down newly paved roads in Juba, Carter told reporters in the southern capital this morning that his observers in Khartoum were reporting very low turnout. Thirty-six people was the highest number at any polling station in the northern capital by mid-morning, he said.

“We have been waiting for our destiny,” says Maluak Atem, who fought in “the struggle” – the term many southerners use to refer to the north-south war – and now works for the United Nations. “I wish everybody had time to vote today so that we could get the result tomorrow.”

In fact, voting will continue until Jan. 15.

Of the more than 3.9 million voters who registered, 60 percent must turn out to vote during this period for the vote to be valid.

Justice Chan Reec Madut, the top southern official in the Referendum Commission, dismissed concerns Sunday that clashes between the southern army and an armed dissident in the south's oil-rich Unity state could affect the outcome of the polls.

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