ALEXANDRIA, Va.-Most of the southern Sudanese casting ballots on Monday had walked many miles to this day where they could vote for their independence. Literally.
Rose Tulio, 40, who manned a polling station in Alexandria, Va., one of eight in the United States, walked to Kenya to escape violence around her home in southern Sudan as a child. Her brother died from meningitis while they walked, and she watched others die of thirst and malaria. When she and her family finally reached a refugee camp in Kenya, cholera broke out. "Cross over from war, now you're in a safe place and you die of cholera," she said matter-of-factly.
While their countrymen cast ballots in their homeland this week, Sudanese citizens worldwide are voting absentee on whether to secede from the North and form an independent country after decades of civil war and genocide. A 2005 peace agreement, a diplomatic accomplishment of the Bush administration, halted the war and paved the way for the referendum.
Voters are expected to choose secession by a landslide, as long as the required 60 percent of registered voters turn out to legitimize the vote. But questions remain as to whether the northern government, led by the brutal Omar al-Bashir, will allow the separation while the South still holds valuable oil reserves. Bashir said he would respect the outcome of the vote. On Monday soldiers from the North killed 20 southern police officers near the disputed borders. The police were accused of killing 10 herders.
At the polling station in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., the atmosphere was celebratory Monday afternoon. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who has traveled to Sudan regularly since 1989, stopped by and was treated like an old friend by the voters. "I'm here to vote!" he announced to laughs. As he stepped out onto the cold sidewalk to speak to a knot of reporters, a Sudanese man pushed through the crowd to give Wolf a high five, his index finger dipped in blue ink from voting.
"It's almost like a parallel to the citizens of the United States in 1776," Wolf said.
Leonard Leo, the chair of the U.S. Commission of International Religious Freedom, also was on hand and added, "It isn't every day a new nation is born."
"We've come a long way. This is what we've been waiting for, looking for," said Nyiware Kodi, 28, who made sure her whole family registered and voted. Kodi's father was one of the southern Sudanese leaders who signed the Addis Ababa agreement in 1972 that temporarily halted the civil war. Kodi's mother was pregnant at the time with Kodi's older sister-the parents named their daughter "Our Land." Kodi's father died in October. "I feel like we're doing this for him," Kodi said.
Ayom Akuoch, 28, thought of his father, who died from a land mine explosion when Akuoch was 6 years old, and his mother, who Akuoch lost when he was 10 years old. Government soldiers attacked his town, and he ran one way and his mother and sister ran in another direction-he found out she had died later.
Bitterness toward the North remains fierce. "We didn't have the same rights and freedoms as the others," said Nyakor Manyang, 25, whose southern Sudanese parents fled to Khartoum, where she was raised. The Arabs there "underestimated" her parents' education, she said, and the only job open to her father was teaching at a school for southerners. Manyang, a Christian, said she was tired of being afraid of being bombed at her church. "That's why I decided to come today to vote. . . . I want to be free. I want to be looked at as a first citizen."
But one of the voters, Peter Atem, lives in Philadelphia and plays on a soccer team with northern Sudanese. "I can hate them for the past," he told me. "But if I have my own country, my own freedom, we can still be friends."
"We cannot afford to have bad relations with the North," said Ezekiel Gatkuoth, South Sudan's envoy to the United States, who presided over the polling place like the host of a party. "There is no return to war. . . . We are tired of war."
Despite all the suffering, many Sudanese in America want to return to southern Sudan should it gain its independence. "Nothing important is there," said Joseph Makuach, 32, who plans to return to Sudan. "We will start building."
"Wow, if I go back-I hear places have changed," Tulio said. "Maybe I will know how to go home but I don't know!" Her sister, she said, will escort her home. "We grew up not knowing each other like in peaceful countries."
"If there was anything I waited for, it would be today," Manyang said.