South Sudan erupts in sheer joy as it becomes world's newest nation

South Sudan burst into song, dance, and exultation as people ushered in July 9. Today, South Sudan officially becomes the world's newest nation after decades of armed liberation struggle.

Pete Muller/AP
South Sudanese celebrated independence from northern Sudan at midnight in the South's capital, Juba. South Sudan became the world's newest nation today, officially breaking away from Sudan after two civil wars over five decades that cost the lives of millions.

As the hours and minutes counted down to midnight, the sheer joy of freedom began to electrify the world's newest capital.

Men, women, and children took to the streets of Juba waving southern flags, donning traditional garb, and grabbing plastic water jugs and paint cans to use as drums. Young men piled into pick-ups and barefoot children ran alongside them. Some congregated in churches, others at traffic roundabouts.

Whether southerners chose to pray, sing, dance, light candles, or even kiss the soil of their new country, everyone was celebrating in his or her own way.

For the people of South Sudan, this sweet moment came only after decades of armed liberation struggle and the loss of brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors.

Asked how he felt on this momentous occasion, a police officer posted at a roundabout broke into a wide grin, exclaiming simply, "Ah! I am free."

The exultant mood was a welcome break for the diverse peoples of the South, where suffering, violence, and repression are the common bonds that have defined the past generations who fought in a deadly liberation struggle to reach this moment.

Finally, they have become "first class citizens" in their own land, in the words of their late leader, war hero and the founder of their armed struggle, Dr. John Garang.

Waving a southern flag while he spoke, one man pointed to young boys dancing in the streets to music pumped from a makeshift speaker system mounted on a storefront and said, "this generation will see the hope of the newborn nation."

After the celebrations subside, the harsh realities facing the new country, which will not automatically be a unified nation with a government representative of the dozens of ethnic groups scattered across the Texas-sized territory, may quickly sober the southern people, especially if their leaders do not rise to the challenges ahead of them.

But for one glorious evening in Juba, the long struggle behind the new Republic was commemorated and the new looming one -- building a nation-state from the ground up -- was temporarily set aside.

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