To grasp the significance of the just-completed referendum in South Sudan for independence from the north, you have to know how bad the war was.
Early one morning in May 2000 I climbed into the back of a tractor crammed with guards and relief workers and rode for several hours across Sudan's Blue Nile state-seated on a jerry can of fuel with someone's AK-47 wedged between my knees. We headed to a camp of newly displaced southern Sudanese we had learned about from Michael Yerko Nadi, a schoolteacher and church elder in the area who went on to become WORLD's Daniel of the Year.
Michael had counted up to 20,000 villagers chased by northern soldiers and tanks from their towns and fields, their crops and homes torched. Such scorched-earth tactics by President Omar al-Bashir's National Islamic Front army in its fight with the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army had by then killed over 2 million and left 4 million internally displaced-in a country of 27 million.
When we arrived at the makeshift camp, we found families in shredded clothes living in lean-tos made of sticks. They had walked for two days before deciding it was safe to stop here. Emaciated children munched alongside goats on dry husks. A mother scooped water from a muddy creek and fed it by drops to her toddler. Nearly out of sight behind another lean-to lay a girl of about four, her hair orange with severe malnutrition, her skin taut over bird-like arms and ribs, her breath so shallow it barely shook off the flies. "Without help," said Dennis Bennett, an aid worker who made the trip that day, "they will all starve together."
Photographer Obed Kundu-himself a southern Sudanese with scars lashing his forehead from beatings by northern soldiers earlier in the war-ducked softly behind the hut to take pictures of the dying girl (shown here). She became the cover of our June 10 issue that year, already dead by the time it was published, an emblem of the awful atrocities and civilian toll the 20-year war would exact.
The week after it came out, I received calls from the State Department wanting to know the exact location of the Blue Nile camps. Human rights activist Nina Shea called me daily as she lobbied to create supply lines into the area despite a UN "no-go" status over Blue Nile and the reluctance of most relief groups to enter the war zone. Dennis Bennett returned a month later with supplies, found the population of the camps had doubled and a measles outbreak was sweeping through the children.
Fast-forward to January 2011 when over 3.7 million South Sudanese voted over 7 days on a referendum for independence. Turnout was 83 percent of registered voters-an amazing achievement for a battered populace. So far the tally in favor of secession is running at nearly 99 percent.
I asked Nina Shea to reflect on Sudan's decade of turning points leading to likely independence this coming July. Shea, a long-serving member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and of the UN Human Rights Commission in 2001, says the confluence of two events were pivotal: the September 2001 appointment of former Sen. John Danforth as special envoy, and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that October.
"Danforth creatively came up with a series of 'confidence building' measures that were immediately fulfilled and led to both sides sitting down at the peace table," she said. Khartoum was willing to work with Danforth because "it feared being invaded like Afghanistan," as Sudan had harbored Osama bin Laden until 1996 and was on the U.S. terrorism list. "In other words," said Shea, "Danforth was the right man at the right time." And this is perhaps our first victory in the war on terrorism.
Shea believes South Sudan's prospects "are better than they've ever been." It will need U.S. assistance, and as Shea points out, the Obama administration should provide it-as the creation of South Sudan offers an opportunity to thwart the spread southward in Africa of militant Islamic radicalism that has emanated from Khartoum. And that is a rare opportunity for all.
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