Referendum Marks a Milestone in Sudan’s War-torn History
NAIROBI, Kenya/GENEVA, 14 January 2011 (LWI) – Akuel Garang Mawien was determined to cast her vote in the referendum that will decide the future of Southern Sudan, and in doing so, also pay tribute to her father, the parent she never met.
The 19-year-old high school student, who lives in Nairobi, Kenya, views the poll as one of the most important milestones in her country’s history. When her father was killed in Sudan’s civil war, her family fled to Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya for safety. Many of her relatives were among the almost 2 million who died because of the decades-long fighting between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Millions of others were displaced in the long civil wars—from 1955 to 1972 and from 1983 to 2005—fought mainly over control of the country’s vast resources.
In the historic referendum vote that started on 9 January concluding on 15 January, the people in the region are expected to choose whether to remain united with the rest of the country or break away to form Africa’s newest nation.
The referendum was mandated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in the Kenyan capital Nairobi in 2005, effectively ending the war fought between the Khartoum government and the SPLM. The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC) says there are approximately 3.9 million voters of which 95 percent or more than 3.7 million are in Southern Sudan, and around three percent, 116,860 voters registered in Northern Sudan. In the diaspora, more than 60,000 registered voters in Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, United Kingdom, and the United States are also expected to vote. According to the SSRC timetable, the final referendum results would be declared in mid-February.
Although jubilation marked the start of the voting within Sudan and the diaspora, fresh clashes were reported in the oil-rich border region of Abyei, which remains the subject of negotiations between the government and SPLM, and is not taking part in the referendum.
Global Church Support
The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has been part of the churches’ efforts toward peace and justice in Sudan for many years, intermittently providing emergency relief services to internally displaced persons inside Sudan from the mid 1970s and to refugees in neighboring countries in later years. Since 1997, the LWF has been present as a cross-border program of the Department for World Service (DWS) from Kenya and Uganda until 2007 when it became a stand-alone country program. Its humanitarian assistance and development work is carried out in the Lakes, Jonglei and Eastern Equatoria States, with the office headquarters in Juba.
Mr Arie Den Toom, LWF/DWS representative in Sudan, spoke of very good security in Juba as patient and jubilant voters lined up to vote, with no major incidents reported five days into the referendum voting.
He pointed out that Sudanese from the North were continuing to arrive in big numbers in the South, especially into Abyei and Unity states. Although Jonglei state had not received notable numbers, the LWF was prepared for such an influx. “We are currently involved in re-training our emergency staff and members of other non-governmental organizations,” Den Toom told LWI. Preparedness also includes the purchase of 5,000 non-food item parcels.
A former freedom fighter Rev. Jacob Lem, now a pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan, encountered at one of the voting centers in Kenya, commended the local, regional and global church community for the long-standing involvement in resolving the conflict in Sudan. “It was the church that encouraged the African Union to bring the government and the rebels to the negotiating table. Christians around the world pushed successfully for the implementation of the CPA,” he said.
Yearning to Return Home
Many of the refugees are now more than ever yearning to return home. At the LWF-managed Kakuma camp, Garang Manyor, a community leader who fled Southern Sudan in 1987, could not hide his joy as he turned up to cast his ballot in the referendum. “We have been at war [for decades] and I am happy that I voted. I am going to change what I can,” said Manyor. “As we wait for the results, I want Southern Sudan people to ask themselves what they can do for their country, not what their country can do for them,” he added.
In Kampala, Uganda, 40-year-old Amin Brown Elemet was emphatic about change that would bring peace. “We could not stay in our country and develop it. Now, we want to go back and build our Southern Sudan,” he said.
Jane Atong, studying languages at the Kampala School of Adult Education, regretted that she could not vote in Khartoum in the north, like the rest of her family. She anticipates continuing her education in Southern Sudan, saying it had been difficult to get access to education in the capital as a southerner.
Still, others were cautious about the enormous task of rebuilding the southern part of Africa’s largest country. “A lot of resources will be needed to build hospitals, schools, water sources and roads, as part of reconstruction and rehabilitation,” said Rev. Jacob Nhail Guut from the Episcopal Church of Sudan, also voting from neighboring Kenya.
“You won’t find good hospitals in any of the Southern Sudanese villages. So the challenge of rebuilding is a huge one. At least a tap with clean water in each village would be a welcome relief,” he added.
Many could not hide their sadness as they described the cluster bombing of settlements, killings of scores of people, and destruction of entire villages. But the thousands turning up at the referendum’s polling stations, dancing and singing joyfully as they cast their ballots are a sign of hope that this chapter of their history will soon be behind them.
“All the time we were running. Weeks would go by without sight of our children or husbands .We were scattered like animals. But now we thank God that we survived to see this day,” said 45-year-old Eli Marco Kolkol Ajabo, a mother five.
“And yes, we voted! I voted!” remarked a jubilant Christine Gedim, a staff person of the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, after casting her ballot in Old Town Alexandria, Washington DC, USA.
“My vote was in honor of those who gave up their lives so that we could witness this historic day […] to help bring an end to being treated as a third class citizen, for all the sufferings and humiliation we endured for almost half a century, and of course to help be a part of the democratic transformation process in Sudan and Africa as a whole,” said Gedim, originally from Mundri West town in Western Equatoria state, Southern Sudan.
“We are hoping and praying for security, peaceful voting processes and happy conclusion,” she added. (1,146 words)
Nairobi (Kenya)-based LWI correspondent Fredrick Nzwili wrote this feature article, with additional information from other sources.