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Birth of a nation

South Sudan starts life as a country under a peace accord but still in the throes of war

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

At 12:01 a.m. on July 9 the 53 countries of Africa became 54. The Republic of South Sudan-an ethnically African, largely Christian region broken from what once was the largest country in Africa-officially won its independence, following two civil wars fought over nearly 50 years at the cost of millions of lives.

"We were all born into war. All of us," said Choi Allen, a 32-year-old pastor who escaped war in Sudan in 2003 and lives in Memphis. Allen returned two months ago to be on hand for the independence celebration launched by a 2005 peace agreement and a referendum last January in which voters overwhelming chose secession. Pointing to a truckload of youngsters, Allen said, "This generation will see the hope of the newborn nation."

Hope was everywhere as dignitaries from across Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America flew into Juba, an improvised capital where many main roads are red dirt. The Saturday ceremony took place in sweltering equatorial heat. At the podium Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir looked on as South Sudan's new president, Salva Kiir, lowered the Sudanese flag and raised the new flag of his country before tens of thousands of cheering onlookers. At a mausoleum dedicated to John Garang, the longtime leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) who fought the Islamic government in Khartoum for over 20 years (but died in a 2005 helicopter crash), a national band in red uniforms unveiled the country's new national anthem, to be sung in English:

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"Oh God! / We praise and glorify you / For your grace on South Sudan /Land of great abundance," it begins, and ends with a salute to "our martyrs whose blood / Cemented our national foundation. / We vow to protect our nation / Oh God, bless South Sudan!"

For the new country's millions of Christians, who watched as Khartoum's National Islamic Front soldiers burned their churches and villages, independence means new religious freedom. A transitional constitution protects freedom to worship and religious liberty for all. (Khartoum's Islamic government earlier this month reaffirmed its commitment to Shariah or Islamic law, which prohibits conversions and denies religious freedom.)

"I am lost for words," said John Ashworth, who arrived to teach in southern Sudan in 1983, later launched Sudan Focal Point, and is now senior advisor to the Sudan Ecumenical Forum. "It was simply a wonderful day, and those who tried to put a negative spin on it for whatever reason failed."

It's not hard to see why the day prompted both celebration and sobriety. The world's newest country is about the size of Texas but has less than 70 miles of paved roads. It has the potential to produce more than half a million barrels of oil per day but has no refineries. It possesses water from both the White and Blue Nile but no hydroelectric capacity.

At its birth South Sudan ranks near the bottom of most of the world's indexes, with the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Of its 8 million people, 44 percent are under age 14. The literacy rate is 27 percent.

South Sudan is also the world's best incubator for some of the deadliest diseases-sleeping sickness, dengue fever, kala-azar, and malaria. Earlier this year international health workers battled an outbreak of polio.

The newly elevated government-approved for admission to the UN on July 13-will need all the patriotic enthusiasm on display in Juba to face these and other dangers. Tribal clashes in South Sudan have killed hundreds, and Khartoum-based militias are inciting Southerners and threatening ethnic cleansing.

In May Khartoum's Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) seized the disputed town of Abyei in violation of the 2005 peace accord. The government has refused to withdraw despite a UN Security Council resolution calling on it to do so. Fighting in disputed regions along the new border between North and South could again plunge the region into what would no longer be a civil war, but an international one.

Kimberly Smith of Make Way Partners said independence isn't an automatic boost to security. Smith's Alabama-based organization operates an orphanage in South Sudan for more than 50 children. (The group also maintains an orphanage near the border of Darfur in western Sudan caring for nearly 600 orphans.) The orphanage's indigenous director in South Sudan recently reported a brutal attack in a nearby village: The raiders left mutilated bodies on the road, and the orphanage took in five children who lost their parents in the attack.

Smith says that indigenous leaders with reliable contacts help both orphanages stay alert to the substantial security concerns, and that the group's mission hasn't changed: "We will keep doing what we're doing because we knew exactly what we were getting into when we came into this situation."

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