Dan Griffin, CRS senior adviser for Sudan is in Juba, the capital city of southern Sudan, during the referendum process. He filed this report on the first day of the historic vote.
Sunday January 9th, Juba, Sudan—Between jet lag and excitement I’m wide awake by 4:00 am. The CRS guesthouse is not far from St. Theresa’s Cathedral. I can hear the choir coming to the end of an all night vigil. Even closer is the polling center for this area, the Kator section of Juba.
At 5:00 a.m. I can hear police and soldiers giving instructions to assembled voters. By dawn the line extends for a hundred yards before wrapping around the block. By 8:00 a.m. the polling centers are reporting voluminous crowds. President Salva Kiir cast his ballot on the morning news. In stark contrast to celebrations in Juba, reports are coming in of violence over the weekend in Abyei and Unity state. More than 40 casualties are confirmed. Initial reports speak of contained violence. Voting will proceed in Unity State as planned. The referendum on the status of Abyei, originally scheduled for today is postponed indefinitely.
Journalists swarm polling stations, photographing, interviewing, and sending live broadcasts via satellite. Centers open on time. The voters stand in orderly lines, and people are showing up at the right polling centers with the right documentation. Some have lined up most of the night, while others will be in line all day.
The mood is both celebratory and serious; the importance of this vote is clearly taken to heart. The process is impressively orderly. Voters present their registration cards that are checked numerically against a registration roll, and put their thumb print in the registry. Their cards are clipped or punched and the voters are given a simple pre-folded ballot – two boxes with the choices in English, Arabic, and symbols—a clasped handshake for unity, or a single hand, palm out fingers up, for secession, a symbol southerners jokingly referred to as “waving goodbye”. The voter puts a thumbprint in the appropriate box, refolds the ballot so as to not smear the ink, and then dips a forefinger in indelible ink. No hanging chads, no butterfly ballots. Elderly, handicapped, or pregnant voters are escorted to the front of the line. It is a very civil way to end a civil war.
At 11:30 a.m. a huge crowd gathers at St. Teresa’s cathedral. Senator Kerry provides opening remarks about the hope and opportunity of this day and praises President Kiir for his leadership and resolve when a return to violence seemed inevitable. Archbishop Paulino Lukudo Loro speaks, Cardinal Napier presides and speaks, President Kiir speaks, and by 2:30 p.m. we are back in the streets for more voting.
At 4:00 p.m. a delegation from AMECEA and the All Africa Council of Churches, including Archbishop Oneiykan from Abuja, Nigeria, escorts Archbishop Lukudo Loro to his polling center. In a nice ecumenical touch, Archbishop Lukudu Loro, the Catholic bishop of Juba, joins Archbishop Daniel Deng, the Episcopal bishop of Sudan, to vote together, just as they registered together. Shortly after the voting and photos, the delegation is met by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who was traveling around, monitoring the vote.
At 5:00 p.m. the voting closes for new arrivals, but some of those already in line will continue to wait till 8:00 p.m. for the opportunity to vote. By dark, most of the voting has closed without a single report of disruption or violence at the polling centers across the south. Unlike a public holiday or a sports victory, the streets are surprisingly quiet—few crowds, little traffic, no loud celebrations.
It has been an emotional day, filled with the stories of what this vote means to the people of southern Sudan—powerful stories of all they have endured and all that they hope for. But the night is quiet, as if the whole city is exhausted and relieved. It has been a privilege to be with the Sudanese for this long-awaited day, to share in their joy and excitement, to witness their profound sense of purpose. Amen.
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