Rural Voters Travel Far To Vote In Southern Sudan

In Southern Sudan, millions of voters started streaming to the polls Sunday — traveling by foot, mule, bicycle and boat to cast ballots over whether the south should secedes from the north. The vote caps a decades-long period of war, death and disease that was halted six years ago by a peace accord that paved the way to Sunday's referendum.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People in southern Sudan are voting for a second day today. They're hoping to write a new, peaceful chapter in the country's otherwise bloody history. The issue here is independence from Sudan's north, and the vast majority of southerners are almost certain to favor it in the voting that lasts for a week.

NPR's Frank Langfitt drove out from the southern capital of Juba to visit some rural polling sites yesterday.

FRANK LANGFITT: This is Kuli Papa. It's a village of about 600 people about an hour's drive outside of Juba in a great wide expanse that's southern Sudan. Mostly, all you can see is scrub and a few thatched huts. There's a termite mound right in front of me across the way, a mud church with a cross on top. And here beneath the shade tree, about 10 people are lined up to vote for unity or independence.

Peres Juan Ebele is a motivated voter. She walked an hour in her purple flip-flops to be among the first to the polls this morning. Ebele has a message in English for the government of northern Sudan.

Ms. PERES JUAN EBELE: They now going bye-bye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LANGFITT: All I can say is bye-bye, she says.

Like many southern Sudanese, Ebele despises the leaders in Khartoum, the northern capital. Ebele, who's about 40, says the north began raiding her village before she was born.

Ms. EBELE: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: She tells me when northern soldiers attacked Kuli Papa, they abducted children and killed husbands and daughters.

Mathias Mogul Mohammad(ph) is a local elder who's chairing the polling station. He says 24 villagers died in a massacre as early as 1969.

Mr. MATHIAS MOGUL MOHAMMAD: There are more attacks.

LANGFITT: How many altogether? Any idea?

Mr. MOHAMMAD: Oh, that cannot be counted. Imagine in a war of 17 years, from time to time, they make attacks. And even this place was a lot (unintelligible) vacant. People all went out.

LANGFITT: How long was it vacant for?

Mr. MOHAMMAD: For more than 20 years.

LANGFITT: Sudan's Arab, mostly Muslim north battled the black, largely Christian and animus south over various issues, including ideology, religion and resources. The conflict became Africa's longest civil war and cost two million lives.

In 2005, the United States brokered a peace agreement. This week's referendum, which runs through Saturday, was part of the deal. Turnout was heavy yesterday, with lines running 500 deep in Juba.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LANGFITT: Several hours drive away in the market town of Lainya, hundreds pushed to get into a polling station in midday heat. Election observers had been concerned the north might try to disrupt this week's vote with violence.

But Cole Mannas(ph), the United Nations election observer, says things seem to be going well.

Mr. COLE MANNAS (Election Observer, United Nations): This is the far center(ph) of Khartoum. It's going on peaceful, and that's what we want.

LANGFITT: And have there been any reports of any problems here in the Juba area or south of Juba?

Mr. MANNAS: Not at all.

LANGFITT: In the days leading up to the vote, there were military clashes in southern Sudan's oil-rich unity state and tribal violence in the disputed region of Abyei. The numbers are fuzzy, but more than two dozen people may have been killed. Polling on Sunday, though, appeared to pass without incident.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

LANGFITT: Mogga Jackson is a Baptist preacher in the village of Ganji Payam. He's wrapping up a small Sunday service beneath a tree. Jackson says he'll vote for independence, because the north has ignored the basic needs of poor villages like his - things like health care and clean water.

Mr. MOGGA JACKSON (Baptist Preacher): There's no doctors which can come and help us. Water isn't available. We have to go to the stream, and get water from the streams.

LANGFITT: Jackson says a free southern Sudan will be able to use money from its resources, like oil, to build a new, more prosperous nation, one where southerners can rule themselves and live without fear from the north.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Juba, Southern Sudan.

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