Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
Mothers tend to their children suffering from severe malnutrition at a hospital in the southeast Sudanese town of Akobo in April. The population in Akobo and the surrounding counties in southern Sudan are suffering from the effects of a devastating drought and tribal conflict.
Mothers tend to their children suffering from severe malnutrition at a hospital in the southeast Sudanese town of Akobo in April. The population in Akobo and the surrounding counties in southern Sudan are suffering from the effects of a devastating drought and tribal conflict. Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
After nearly half a century of on-and-off civil war between North and South Sudan, southerners are expecting to vote next year on whether their semi-autonomous region should become a fully independent nation.
No one knows for sure what independence might look like. But most southerners say it would feel just fine.
In the town of Akobo, not far from southern Sudan's border with Ethiopia, rain has been scarce since 2008. The black, desiccated, deeply cracked earth is its own weather report.
The United Nations says Akobo is on the verge of famine. What's more, the population has swelled significantly since cattle raiding drove thousands of people into town.
Yiang Mayhan lives in a little tent above the Pibor River. There's no way she can cram all of her children in, so they mostly live outside. But Mayhan sees better days ahead. In January, she says she is going to vote for southern Sudan to become an independent nation.
The vote on independence that southerners are expecting arises from the 2005 peace agreement that ended the civil war between the mostly Muslim North and the Christian and animist South.
In 22 years of fighting, more than 2 million people were killed and millions more displaced.
The peace deal, mediated by the United States and Sudan's neighbors, set out a six-year timetable for the two sides to work out their problems or split amicably.
Early next year, the South is supposed to vote on whether to officially split from the North and become an independent nation. But the North may be unwilling to let the oil-rich region go peacefully.
— NPR staff
"Because we need as southerners to have our own country," she says, "we are going to be separated from the North."
Independence won't bring the rain. But for millions of southerners, it will bring something just as important — a break from the Muslim-dominated North, which has been more foe than friend to the Christian and animist South for many years.
The Feeling Of Freedom
"As southerners, we have suffered for a very long period of time. So we need to have our own independence," Mayhan says.
Goi Jooyul Yol, the county commissioner of Akobo, says no one will be forced to vote for independence, but "the people have seen that it's not working — the marriage [of North and South] is not working. They have to go."
"You know, things related to freedom are things that are not tangible, that you cannot touch — and the feelings also you cannot weigh," Yol says.
Luka Marial Hol says he will vote for separation next year. Hol lives in the southern capital of Juba — a boom town that still smacks of the frontier. In Juba, people have been known to hide bullets in their Bibles. During the civil war, Hol fought in the southern infantry, and he says he will fight for separation with the North if need be.
"If there is a war, I will go back," Hol says. "If we started it, we have to finish it, because we cannot leave this war for our children. We have to finish it now so that our children can live a better life."
That's exactly the kind of talk that makes Luka Biong Deng nervous. Deng is the minister of presidential affairs for southern Sudan. He has been part of recent negotiations with the ruling party of northern Sudan on what secession might look like.
Southerners could be disappointed with the result. The South may have to share the burden of Sudan's international debt for years to come. And that means the South may have to share its oil wealth with the North for years to come.
Northern Sudan depends on southern oil as its most significant revenue stream. So, Deng says, for the sake of peace, the North needs a "soft landing."
"We can have a soft landing for the northern Sudan to adopt this shock of the decision of the people of southern Sudan seceding and the economic consequences," Deng says. "The people of northern Sudan are worried. But we don't want them to be antagonistic to the South."
Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
South Sudanese women carry cans filled with water on their heads at Terekeka, north of Juba. Many southerners say they plan to vote for independence next year.
South Sudanese women carry cans filled with water on their heads at Terekeka, north of Juba. Many southerners say they plan to vote for independence next year. Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
But southerners are counting on their oil money to develop their vast and empty homeland. Right now, people here fight one another for resources, using bows and arrows, spears, AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
North of Juba, the town of Terekeka comes as close to a state of nature as it gets. The Nile River makes a wide and lazy pass through the area, and little shepherd boys swim with enormous white cows from the shore to their island corral. This is where the Mondari tribe lives.
The Mondari are accusing the neighboring Dinka tribes of stealing their cattle.
"They came to my place. They are heavily armed. They have guns and other traditional weapons," says the local Mondari chief. "So it is them who have the upper hand."
Out here, a gun guarantees independence. The chief says he will vote for southern Sudan to secede from the North next year. But he would sleep better with a pistol under his pillow. Because when the sun goes down, government — any government — is far away.