For a burgeoning majority of South Sudanese citizens, voting by ballot in a January referendum for independence is complicated: An estimated 75 percent of South Sudanese can't read.
So the momentous question of whether South Sudan will secede from the rest of the country and form its own nation comes down to a pair of symbols printed on paper ballots: An image of two clasped hands means a vote for unity with the North. A single open hand means a vote for separation. Most predict that South Sudan will secede by a landslide.
A vote for secession would bring questions both harrowing and hopeful. First, the harrowing: Would the brutal northern regime release the South and its coveted oil reserves without a fight? How would the two regions settle a still-disputed border?
Next, the hopeful: Could southern independence foster much-needed development in a land rich with natural resources? And what could peaceful secession mean for scores of churches in the predominantly Christian southern region if freed from ties with the Islamic north?
One thing is clear: For good or ill, what happens in Sudan in 2011 will have a dramatic impact on the largest nation in Africa and the sprawling region that surrounds it. Like many other beginnings, the birth of a nation is full of pain and promise.
Southern secession would be a dramatic climax to decades of suffering. More than 20 years of civil war with a northern government seeking to capture the South's vast natural resources and impose Islamic law on the largely Christian region took a brutal toll: Some 2 million Sudanese died in scorched-earth campaigns led by President Omar al-Bashir. Another 4 million fled their homes.
A 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the North-South fighting and opened the way for southerners to return to the region, but southerners say the North has failed to keep key provisions of the treaty, including giving them a fair share of oil revenue. They also accuse the North of backtracking on promises to abide by North-South borderlines determined by The Hague.
By December, South Sudan's ruling party said it would endorse a vote for independence, echoing the sentiment of most southerners. Anne Itto, deputy secretary of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, explained that the North had made unity "very, very, very unattractive."
The South's secession may be equally unattractive to the North. The southern region contains 80 percent of the country's oil reserves. The North has long piped the oil to refineries in northern regions to export from the Port of Sudan for huge profits. Though the two regions have said they will reach an agreement that would allow the South to continue to use the pipeline, and allow the North to benefit from the oil, the Khartoum-based government in the North may be unwilling to lose control of oil-rich territory to an independent nation.
The disputed Abyei region along the North-South border may be the most explosive example. Northern forces torched much of the area inhabited by southerners in 2008. Residents of the region were scheduled to vote on a referendum in January to determine whether the region would belong to the North or South, but the northern government has mired the process, making a January vote impossible.
Even if southerners choose to secede in January, the question of Abyei will remain and could lead to fresh fighting, or even a return to the kind of war that ravaged the South for decades. Such a war would be devastating to Sudanese in the North and South and could ensnare many of the nine nations bordering Sudan.
With little time left before the referendum, other contentious issues remained unresolved. For example, would southerners living in the North become northern citizens? How would each region guarantee the safety of citizens from the other side? What would be the final arrangements on sharing oil resources?
U.S. officials publicly pressed Sudan to settle such issues, but much of the pressure came late. In November U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., traveled to Khartoum with a surprising message from the Obama administration: The United States would consider removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terror as early as 2011 if Khartoum allows the southern referendum to proceed peacefully.
Even more surprising: Despite reports of fresh violence in the country's western region of Darfur, the United States wouldn't consider Darfur when making a decision about Sudan's spot on the terror list. Smith College professor and Sudan expert Eric Reeves calls that proposal "a very dangerous precedent and encourages Khartoum to believe that there are more concessions to be had."
Roger Winter, a former director for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and an unpaid adviser to the government of South Sudan, agrees. Winter says the United States has catered to Khartoum, despite an abysmal track record that includes International Criminal Court indictments of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide in Darfur.
Indeed, during U.S. special envoy Scott Gration's first visit to Sudan last year, the retired Air Force officer told Khartoum officials, "I come here with my hands open," saying he hoped Khartoum would respond "with a hand of friendship." Gration didn't publicly mention war crimes or genocide.
Winter believes that Gration may have "an over-sized commitment to [Obama's] view about reaching out to the Arabic and Islamic world." And he says that unsuccessful diplomacy in Sudan could be disastrous: "The Obama administration could very possibly go down as having some key responsibility in losing the peace in Sudan."
For now, Reeves says it's impossible to know what Khartoum will do in response to the referendum, since war would be costly for a regime already suffering from deep economic problems. And he says uncertainty is a central part of the regime's plan: "There's a strategic value to keeping the world guessing."
In the meantime, southerners are preparing for the Jan. 9 vote and contemplating post-referendum life in South Sudan. Nearly 3 million southerners registered to vote in the referendum during a three-week period in November. In the streets of the South Sudanese capital of Juba, Henry Lemor joined thousands of other citizens rallying for independence, waving a single open hand to show the decision he's already made: "We say, bye-bye to Khartoum."
William Levi-founder of the Massachusetts-based Operation Nehemiah-fled South Sudan after enduring torture for his Christian faith at the hands of Islamic captors during the civil war. After coming to the United States, he founded Operation Nehemiah to help displaced southern Sudanese living in refugee camps. Now the ministry helps citizens returning to South Sudan, with work including a church, agricultural projects, a healthcare clinic, and a radio ministry.
Levi says the implications of independence from the Islamic north are enormous for the largely Christian region: "By halting the advance of jihadism, South Sudan not only remains free to pursue Christ but keeps the heart of sub-Sahara Africa open for the gospel."
He says the ministry hopes to expand its humanitarian projects to meet more material needs, but adds that the deepest needs remain spiritual. "Certainly, freedom from Islamic tyranny will remove significant challenges to the preaching of the gospel, but we understand that true oppression is in the heart of man and cannot be alleviated by political change," he says. "Only Jesus Christ has the power to set men free."