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Hope, uncertainty as people flock back to Southern Sudan

From David McKenzie, CNN
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Southern Sudanese return home
  • Thousands of Southern Sudanese natives are happily returning to their homeland
  • While the mood is generally upbeat, job opportunities are scare in the rural South
  • Votes are being counted to determine in Southern Sudan will secede from the North

Juba, Sudan (CNN) -- For years, in some cases decades, they survived persistent and intense violence, lived in often squalid refugee camps or tough cities and were treated as second-class citizens in what -- at least for a few more months -- has been their country.

But soon, hundreds of thousands of people from Southern Sudan could have a new country -- and with it, new hopes, new challenges and new uncertainty.

After what was widely hailed as a smoothly run election earlier this month, votes are now being tallied to determine if the South will indeed secede from northern Sudan, where the capital and political power has rested in this east-central African nation. If the majority supports the referendum, Southern Sudan could become the world's newest nation as early as July.

That prospect enticed men like Angelo Androgo. For 25 years, he lived in the capital of Khartoum. He came to his native South lured by messages on television and radio promising fresh opportunity.

Sudan vote comes to end

But he's found little to suggest that his life will become better any time soon.

"I wanted to come to my country, but they shouldn't have told lies on the TV," he said. "And if someone had called me and told me what it was like, I wouldn't have come."

For now, Androgo and his family are living under a tree in Juba, the biggest city and prospective capital of Southern Sudan. Whatever his doubts, he says that he's committed to making it work -- for himself, his children and his homeland.

He has plenty of company in the decaying Nile River port and large refugee camp of Juba, which in recent days has filled with happy, dancing native Southern Sudanese. Like Androgo, they voiced pleasure with the direction that their homeland may be moving, even as they're unsure what direction their own lives may take.

Many are transitioning from urban environments to a fare more rural one. Some teenagers, who had never seen Southern Sudan until their recent arrival, say they are waiting for factories to build.

Still, except for makeshift efforts to build simple houses, there is little evidence in the area of large-scale construction. What is apparent, though, is positive energy seen in friendly waves, heard in frequent singing and evidenced in the enthusiastic turnout in the election that ended Saturday night.

Officials in Southern Sudan said preliminary results show that at least 60% of registered voters nationwide had cast ballots, crossing the threshold needed for the referendum to be valid. Officials speculate that the final turnout could reach 91%. And 3.1 million of Southern Sudan's 3.7 million registered voters had weighed in as of Friday evening, according to Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission.

These voters include men like John Baptiste, a native Southern Sudanese.

"We have waited for 50 years, and we want to be separate," he said.

For two decades, the government dominated by Arab Muslims in northern Sudan fought black Christians and animists in the south, like Androgo and Baptiste, in a civil war that left about 2 million dead. That was until a 2005 landmark agreement that, among other things, paved the way for this month's referendum.

Remote Southern Sudan has promise: about 80 percent of Sudan's valuable oil reserves are in this region, which had been a source of contention during the war.

And yet the severely undeveloped region and potential new country, which is about the size of Texas, only has 30 miles of paved roads.

That's made it challenging to care for the tens of thousands coming to Southern Sudan, hoping to improve their situations but seeing little in the way of immediate economic opportunity. One of the largest, and only, structures at the large Juba camp is a straw tent that serves as both a clinic and resting place for women and children.

Dr. Vincent Kahi, a medical coordinator with the International Rescue Committee, said medical personnel -- like Southern Sudanese themselves -- are simply trying to do all that they can, given what they have, and trying to keep their hopes high.

"In an emergency, somehow we have to provide the care, wherever we are," Kahi said. "We have to do the best we can."