Sweat cascades down hundreds of determined faces. It’s only 9 am but the temperature approaches 100 degrees. Police sirens ring out over car horns and speaker systems that blare nationalist slogans in English and Arabic. A man in his twenties leads a group of primary school students in chants related to southern Sudan’s upcoming independence referendum. “Yes, yes to separation,” he shouts. The phrase comes back to him in phonetic mispronunciation as his young audience attempts to sound out s-e-p-a-r-a-t-i-o-n. The kids wave southern flags and beam with excitement.
“We will never surrender,” a woman on a truck-bed chants through a microphone. A crowd of older participants echoes her words. Older men lean on one another, wiping sweat from their brows. Years of war and suffering as a result of the south’s quest for independence adds gravity to their words. They chant for their fallen comrades and lost loved ones. They chant for a struggle that consumed and defined their lives.
Six months out from southern Sudan’s scheduled independence referendum, the citizens here are gearing up. “It is so important that we start to raise awareness about the referendum so that we do not experience the same problems we had with the elections,” says David Diing, an organizer of today’s march and a member of the group Youth for Separation. He’s referring to Sudan’s recent presidential, parliamentary and gubernatorial elections that took place throughout the country in April. Despite having been largely peaceful, the elections were marred by logistical and administrative challenges, allegations of rigging and widespread claims of harassment and intimidation.
“We cannot afford to have the same confusion during the referendum that we had in the elections,” Diing adds. He explains that Youth for Separation is a coalition of civil society and community-based organizations that is committed to southern independence and advocates that position to the population. While the majority of southerners favor separation from the north, some elements of the community find unity attractive.
“We want everyone to see that we are in support of southern independence and we want to encourage the government to form the referendum commission so that we’re prepared for the vote in January,” says Diing. To date, the Government of Southern Sudan, an interim governing body in the south created by a 2005 peace deal, has yet to form the essential commission that will handle issues related to the referendum. To date, significant political difference with the north, such as the demarcation of the border, remain unresolved. “It is important that all of us start doing our own parts now so that the referendum is able to take place on its scheduled date,” Diing adds.
It is clear that the referendum will be a truly momentous event in world history. The struggle for self-rule in southern Sudan spanned three decades and cost more than two million lives. It left this massive country in a state of utter ruin. If the motion for independence passes, I can only begin to imagine the outpouring of emotion that will gripe this long embattled land. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to witness this period of history.