In Northern Sudan, Pain At Possible Partition

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Voter turnout in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, was low on the first day of the referendum that will likely lead to the formation of the world's newest nation. Many in northern Sudan feel pain and anger at the prospect of losing almost half their nation.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: And I am Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Khartoum. Here in the Sudanese capital, voter turnout appeared low on the first day of the historic referendum.

At the polling station in Kober, a neighborhood where Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir once lived, fewer than 10 percent of the registered voters turned up by the afternoon. There were also nearly three times as many election monitors than there were poll workers. They eagerly tended to any voter who wandered into the tent.

Poll worker Mohammed Musa al Hassan pored over the rolls to tally who cast ballots since opening time.


NELSON: Thirty-three?

Mr. HASSAN: Until now, yes.

NELSON: That's from 8 o'clock this morning?

Mr. HASSAN: Yes, this morning. It start this morning at 8 o'clock, and we expect more.

NELSON: He blamed the low turnout on cold weather. Actually, it was 77 degrees, and the skies were clear. But even without weather issues, the depressed turnout was no surprise. That's because most people in the north reject the idea of a divided Sudan. They worry most about economic hardship, given they would lose most of their oil fields to a new nation.

Many of those who favor dividing Sudan, like the impoverished southerners who live in Khartoum's slums, chose to forgo voting for fear of a backlash from the police or state security agents.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: At this polling center representing 50 blocks in a slum called Jabarona, only one voter was present: a 47-year-old widow named Mary Kauya.

A low northern turnout isn't likely to worry southern officials. They've registered more than enough voters in the south to achieve the results needed for their new country to be born.

They also don't want southern voters who live in the north to do what Suleiman Kom Suleiman did. He cast his ballot for a continued unified Sudan.

Mr. SULEIMAN KOM SULEIMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The 38-year-old carpenter explains his family life and work are here in Khartoum. He adds his homeland lacks adequate services and infrastructure to be an independent country.

The Carter Center's observation mission says it's too early to say whether voters in the north were intimidated or otherwise prevented from getting to the polls. But one center official says what the monitors saw in Khartoum on the first day of the referendum was generally positive.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Khartoum.

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