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Southern Sudan counts down

By Skye Wheeler

It is as if the clock can’t wait.

Towering above traffic beeping and screeching around a small Juba roundabout, the referendum clock tells the capital how many days, hours, minutes are left before Southern Sudanese will make the choice they’ve been waiting for all their lives: whether to remain one country with the north or separate and form their own.

It’s a big moment. The clock’s red electronic numbers keep crashing down to zero, but the atmosphere is so electric that it seems as likely a result of excitement as of malfunction.

Juba, the Nile-side town that will almost certainly be on its way to being Africa’s newest capital on Sunday, is all waving flags, rally-caused tooting traffic jams and boisterous replies to the dusty, sweaty questions from the deluge of international journalists that have flown in this week.

Southern rebels signed a peace deal with Khartoum in 2005 that ended a two-decade long war which followed another equally protracted north-south conflict. Elections, an almost-autonomous government for the South, and half of all oil revenues from rich southern wells were promised.

But nothing was as important, as hungered-for, as the final promise: the independence referendum six months before the end of the interim period, January 9, 2011.

And here it is. There they are: the seconds ticking down.

In the corner of Juba University there’s a gathering. Rows of matching t-shirts declare the necessity of separation. An enormous black hand tied onto a car hood is being driven around the periphery: the sign for “goodbye.” All over Juba people have started showing their palm as a greeting. On Sunday, voters will stamp their thumbprint down either next the single hand symbol or a handshake. You can ask all day, all week, and not meet a soul even considering the latter, the unity image.

The university, Southern Sudan’s main academic institution, is colonial-old and broken down from years of neglect. In terms of infrastructure, the war ruined almost everything. Huge and rural and linked only by a few roads, many of which are useless in the wet season, Southern Sudan is far behind its east African neighbors.

A man stands waiting to enter a large dance space in the center of the gathering as the speeches, much punctuated by cheering and clapping, come and go. He is dressed in old, torn shorts and many fresh sprigs from a neem tree that form a green cloud of leaves around his torso. Together with his fellow Mundari dancers – each dance is from a different tribe of the South’s 70-plus ethnic groups – he moves into the arena and starts jumping. Dust rises into the air to the beat of drums and sound of traditional horn instruments. Other dancers are draped in beads and some are carefully covered in decorative dust that makes them a ghost-like orange.

In many ways this is what all this is about. Southerners felt economically sidelined by the north and that their resources were being unfairly taken advantage of, but the heart of the dispute is the vast cultural divide between the north and south, and what Southerners felt was an oppression and dissolution of their ways of life. The introduction of Shariah law in the Christian south by the Islamic north was a major trigger for the second war, and the feeling that they are regarded as second-class citizens is still a main cause of bitterness for Southerners.

Nothing can be done about the 2 million people who died in the war. But the choice that will be made on Sunday for many will not only provide independence but also freedom from psychological shadows both collective and personal. Since the peace deal, Southerners have constantly worried that the north will try to find a way to disrupt the referendum. Promises, they say, have been broken many times before by Khartoum. The peace deal, wise Sudan analysts said, is better understood as a ceasefire; the past six years have been lived with a return to violence a constant possibility. The referendum has taken on a mythical power before it even takes place.

Bound up in high-colored ideas of freedom, the event is seen by some as the answer to all ills, and by many, if not sufficient to make the South a reasonable place to grow up, still necessary. The close relations between the South and the U.S. are not just strategic but also full of the reverberations of history — the American independence story,  the shaking off of an unwanted, distant ruler — visiting U.S. officials have been known to get misty-eyed.

Juba’s joy this week as the ballot day approaches has in part been disbelief that this is actually happening, finally after over half a decade of struggle and 2 million lives lost. No one is underestimating the challenges ahead — a still-nascent government, an ethnically divided South, some of the world’s worst education and health statistics. The unfairness of what has happened, the unfairness of tribalism and militarized power structures left over from the days of war.

But here it is: just around the corner. In a handful of hours no one will turn the clock back from zero. Now at last, Southerners say, they can stop waiting and move forward.