RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
North and South Sudan have been waging on-and-off civil war for half a century. Next year, the South plans to vote on whether their region should become a fully independent nation.
No one knows what independence might look like, but as NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports, most Southerners say it will feel just fine.
GWEN THOMPKINS: In the town of Akobo, not far from Southern Sudan's border with Ethiopia, it hasnt rained since 2008. OK, it drizzled once, the people here say. But the black, desiccated, deeply cracked earth they're standing on is its own weather report.
The United Nations says Akobo is on the verge of famine. What's more, the population here has swelled significantly since cattle raiding drove thousands of people into town.
Yiang Mayhan lives in an ugly, little tent above the Pibor River. There's no way she can cram all of her kids into that thing, so they mostly live outside, like livestock. But Mayhan sees better days ahead. Come January, she says she's going to vote for Southern Sudan to become an independent nation.
Ms. YIANG MAYHAN: (Through Translator) Because we need, as Southerners, to have our own country. We are going to be separated from the North.
THOMPKINS: 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 lo these many years.
If Mayhan knew how to read or write, or had studied history, she might liken her feelings to Franklin Roosevelt's description of the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. But somehow, all of those ideas are embedded in what she does say.
Ms. MAYHAN: (Through Translator) As Southerners, we have suffered for a very long period of time. So we need to have our own independence.
THOMPKINS: Goi Jooyul Yol is the county commissioner of Akobo.
Mr. GOI JOOYUL YOL (County Commissioner): You know, things related to freedom are things that are not tangible, that you cannot touch. The feelings, also, you cannot weigh. We are not forcing people to vote for independence, but the people have seen that it's not working the marriage is not working. They have to go.
THOMPKINS: If Luka Marial Hol were a coyote, he'd gnaw off a paw to be free. 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. Hol says he'll vote for separation next year and if need be, he'll fight for it.
Mr. LUKA MARIAL HOL: If there is a war, I will go back.
Mr. HOL: Yes.
THOMPKINS: There are a lot of people who say, after being in war once, I never want to go back again.
Mr. HOL: 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.
THOMPKINS: That's exactly the kind of talk that makes Luka Biong Deng nervous. Deng is the minister of presidential affairs for Southern Sudan. He's been part of recent negotiations with the ruling party of Northern Sudan on what secession might look like, and 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 that for the sake of peace, the North needs a soft landing.
Minister LUKA BIONG DENG (Presidential Affairs, Southern Sudan): We can have a soft landing for the Northern Sudan to adopt to this shock of the decision of the people of Southern Sudan seceding and the economic consequences. The people of Northern Sudan are worried but warned not to be antagonistic to the South.
THOMPKINS: 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.
(Soundbite of rushing water)
THOMPKINS: 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. And the Mondari are accusing the neighboring Dinka tribes of stealing their cattle.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
THOMPKINS: According to a dirt map by the local Mondari chief, the Dinka took the same path that the Mondari use when they're raiding the Dinka.
Unidentified Man: (Through Translator) They came to my place. They are heavily armed. They have guns and other traditional weapons. So it is them who have the upper hand.
THOMPKINS: Out here, a gun guarantees independence. The chief says he'll vote for Southern Sudan to secede from the North next year. But he'd sleep better with a pistol under his pillow because when the sun goes down, government any government is far, far away.
Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Khartoum.
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