Sudan vote: celebrations across south as millions flock to polling stations


President Bashir promises to accept result of week-long referendum, which attracts high turnout on first day
Xan Rice
in Awei

lSouthern Sudanese leader Salva Kiir
South Sudan’s leader Salva Kiir says the vote is ‘the moment the people of southern Sudan have been waiting for’. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Millions of southern Sudanese voted today at the start of a historic independence referendum that will result in Africa’s largest country splitting into two.
Across the vast south, which has seen conflict with the north for most of Sudan’s post-colonial history, men and woman queued from before dawn at thousands of polling stations. Though it is a week-long poll, turnout appeared to be large on the first day, with around 50% of registered voters casting their ballots at some centres.
In Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, its president, Salva Kiir, voted as soon as polls opened at 8am, describing the referendum as “the historic moment the people of southern Sudan have been waiting for”.
He paid tribute to John Garang, the revered southern rebel leader who died just months after signing the 2005 agreement to end the 21-year civil war with the north, which caused around 2 million deaths. The referendum was the key element of the peace deal.
“I believe Doctor John and all those who died with him are with us today and I want to assure them they have not died in vain,” Kiir said.
An overwhelming vote for secession is assured, with most southern Sudanese considering themselves culturally and religiously distinct from the Arab-dominated north, where sharia law is in place. The south has also suffered from neglect and marginalisation by successive governments in Khartoum, and is one of the least developed places on earth.

But the challenges of building a new state from little more than scratch are for another day – today was a time of celebration. In Aweil, the capital of Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, Augustine Ngor emerged slowly from a primary school classroom, a brown towel wrapped around his shoulders for warmth, a silver torch in his hand, his right thumb inked in purple and a smile brightening his weathered face. He had not slept the previous night; how could he before a day like this?

Before arriving at the polling station at 2am, he had prayed and read the Bible, especially Isaiah 18, which refers to the hardships of “a people tall and smooth-skinned” – taken by southern Sudanese to refer to themselves – and “a banner raised on the mountains”, interpreted as the flag of their independent state.

“We have suffered for 55 years at the hands of our Arab brothers,” said Ngor, 70. “And now at last we will have our freedom.”

Voting is open to southerners living across Sudan, and in several other countries, including Britain. But in the national capital, Khartoum, in the north, many polling centres were empty at opening time. The majority of southerners living there chose not to register, fearful that their votes could be manipulated by President Omar al-Bashir’s regime.

Once the south secedes, it will take with it more than 80% of Sudan’s oil reserves, and a quarter of its landmass – something that has upset many in the north.

“We feel an incredible sadness that a … very loved part of Sudan will separate from us,” said northern opposition Umma Party official Sara Nuqdullah.

While Bashir’s government has blocked a separate referendum in the disputed region of Abyei, where several people have been killed in clashes between northern and southern herders in recent days, he has promised in recent weeks to respect the result of the southern poll.

There were reports todayof clashes between southern troops and local militias in Unity state, which disrupted voting in some areas. But for the most part the vote was peaceful and well-organised.

In Aweil town, which was held by the northern army during the war, men and women sipped sweet tea and listened to radios as they waited patiently for their chance to vote in the cardboard booths. Referendum staff appeared well trained, and local and foreign observers, who were out in force, reported few problems.

At Sikhadit voting centre, at the railway police offices, 1,497 out of 3,120 registered voters had cast their ballots shortly before the polls closed. Other centres had similar turnouts. Exiting the polling stations, voters were happy to reveal their choice.

Chief Garang Aken Achek, 51, whose position as a local leader earned first place in his queue, said his family had danced all night, and would slaughter a goat to celebrate. “We have to separate,” he said, lifting his trouser leg to reveal a bullet scar. “I was shot by the Arabs in the war. They killed my mother, my father and three of my children.”

Official results are due before 15 February.

The long walk
A mother hopes for freedom

At 10pm on Saturday night, Bakhita Adheiu wrapped her baby tightly in a blanket and set out from her hut along the dusty road to the town centre. For the next four hours she walked through the chilly night until she reached a primary school located in a former military base in Aweil.

There was already one other woman at the referendum centre, and over the next few hours the line grew steadily. Like Adheiu, who is 22, several other female voters carried young babies with them.

Shortly after 8am, she walked into the classroom which was being used as a polling station, found her name in the register, and had her voter’s card punched. Handing her child to one of the referendum staff, she then put an inky thumbprint next to the picture of an open hand on the ballot paper – the symbol of separation – folded it, and dropped it in a clear ballot box.

“I have three children and I don’t want them to see war again,” she said. “I want them to have freedom. This is why I came here.”

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