As I've followed the recent referendum on Southern Sudan's independence -- a region notorious for its war-ravaged past and massive population of displaced people -- I've learned of the special place this country has in the hearts of World Vision staff members around the world.
For some, Sudan is the location of one of their earliest overseas assignments, like my colleague, James Addis, who recently wrote about his experience there 12 years ago. For others, Sudan is a distant memory of a worship experience (this post is coming later next week). And still for others, Sudan is the place they call home, and this referendum is a step toward personal healing and a nation's first real chance for peace.
The following was written by Abraham Nhial, a communications officer with World Vision in South Sudan.
When the president of Sudan, Omar Al Bashir, visited the South Sudanese city of Juba a few days ahead of the January 9 referendum, I was among the thousands who turned up to welcome him. Despite the scorching sun, I humbly joined my countrymen to welcome His Excellency the President. He reiterated that he would be the first to recognize the south if the people chose separation. His statement breathed a timely breeze of hope amidst anxiety.
Late in the 1990s, I lived in a displaced people’s camp about 200 kilometers away from Juba, in a place called Kotobi, in Western Equatoria State. I was running away from government troops. My life in this camp was characterized by fear and misery, as we heard about others in Juba who had been killed in the raids. That is an era I would love to forget. Voting in this referendum is part of a healing process for me. It provides me with an opportunity to make a choice on an issue that I feel strongly about.
Last month, I visited a returnee transit center in Juba. Here I met with families and people who are stranded along the river terminal after arriving from the north. Mr. James Oromo, age 36, and his wife and five children are part of the multitude. Oromo fled to the north during the years of civil war in the south, 20 years ago.
Returnees receive blankets, mosquito nets, soap and plastic sheets at a World Vision distribution in Kuajok. (Geoffrey Denye Kalebbo/WV)
It took his family 28 days to arrive in Juba by ferry. His plan was to proceed to Torit, which is his hometown, but 13 days later, he was still living under a big mango tree with his entire family and all of their belongings. Oromo told me his family had been surviving on the cash they carried with them.
“I am happy to be back home, although life is not easy, as you have seen,” he says as he irons his shirt on a table he carried all the way from the north. This man is one of an estimated 35,000-plus reported to have returned to the south from the north since November.
World Vision has already provided food and other items such as blankets, soap, mosquito nets, and medical care to over 3,000 returnees like Oromo and his family. It is estimated that the numbers here could swell up to 51,000 people. Although the conditions might seem desperate, the returnees appeared upbeat about the prospects of being free and secure in the south.
Only the people who experienced the times before the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement can understand the statement that “this referendum is for the future of the children, and in honor of the heroes.” Perhaps the history of a painful past will begin to dim in the hope of a new and peaceful future. This is my prayer.
South Sudan concluded the week long referendum polling on January 15. Preliminary results will be released as early as January 31, and final results on February 6 according to South Sudan Referendum Commission.