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Tens of thousands of people are pouring back into southern Sudan in anticipation the region will choose independence in a referendum next month. The vote would split Africa's largest country and create the world's newest nation. But southern Sudan is desperately poor and undeveloped. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, some people who've already gone back to the south wonder whether the would-be nation can handle many more returnees.
FRANK LANGFITT: In the early years of Sudan's Civil War, William Madouk's parents fled the fighting in south Sudan and settled in the northern capital of Khartoum. That was more than two decades ago. William wasn't even born. Although he's spent his whole life in the north, he says he hates living there.
WILLIAM MADOUK: They tell us that we are heathens, mean that we don't believe in one god. And at the same time, they say that those people they don't have the right to work here.
LANGFITT: Madouk, like many southern Sudanese, is a Christian African. Khartoum is an Arab Muslim city. Madouk says he and his friends are routinely harassed - even jailed - by police for things like un-Islamic dress - in this case, blue jeans. Madouk is an English major at a university in Khartoum. Although he's never actually seen south Sudan, he can't wait to move there.
MADOUK: It is better for us to go back to south Sudan and build our country - a country that there is freedom of expression, freedom of choice and also freedom to do whatever you want like to do.
LANGFITT: And what would you do there? Are there jobs?
MADOUK: Until now, I don't know whether there will be or not. But it is there. Even if there is no job, I will feel ok there, because it is my land. I'm ready. I'm ready to go. I will not wait even one minute.
LANGFITT: Sabit Abdullah Batali worked as a driver for an aid organization in Khartoum. After north and south Sudan signed a peace deal in 2005, he was among the hundreds of thousands who decided to come to Juba. Except for a brief stint as a driver soon after he arrived, Batali hasn't worked in years.
SABIT ABDULLAH BATALI: (Through translator) Life in Khartoum was better, because I was working. Here in the south, I'm in my homeland. But the government doesn't care about us. We are waiting. How is the government of the south going to handle us? We're waiting for that moment.
LANGFITT: Sabit Batali lives in a house made of mud and wood he built by hand. Asked how he pays for food, his eyes well up. He says he begs.
ABDULLAH BATALI: (Through translator) I have brothers and friends where I used to work. When I see them, they give me ten or twenty dollars. Anytime I meet someone, I ask for help. That's how I survive.
LANGFITT: Batali isn't unusual. Officials in Gudele West say unemployment there is 90 percent. Those who have jobs often must create their own, whether it's gathering firewood or using a gas-powered generator to charge people's cell phones.
ISAAC AMIN CORNELIO: The community grows every day.
LANGFITT: Isaac Amin Cornelio serves as secretary for Gudele West. He says the community can't handle more people.
AMIN CORNELIO: We have nothing to give them, unless what we can give them suggests we show them that this place you can stay here. But we have nothing in hand as a community to supply to them.
LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
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