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:
"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."
Some of those in most immediate danger are Sudanese who are loyal to South Sudan but now live north of its border. In the state of South Kordofan Sudan's military has heavily bombed the region, home to members of the Nuba ethnic group, mostly Christians who sided with South Sudan during civil war. Amar Amoun, a local military official loyal to the South, described the attacks to The Independent: "They are not bombing our military, they are bombing our civilians and terrorizing our people."
Both the South's forces (also known as SPLA) and the North's SAF have bases in South Kordofan, and observers say SAF incursions to disarm the SPLA have led to the conflict that has displaced 75,000 people, according to UN estimates. The SAF has cut off to aid workers and journalists most areas of fighting, leaving reports of dead and ongoing atrocities unverifiable.
On July 13, Ashworth reported, "I have just this minute talked to three Nuba, including one very old friend, who found their way separately to Juba with firsthand news of [the South Kordofan towns of] Kauda, Kadugli, and Dilling. All confirm that the targeting of Nuba and suspected SPLM sympathizers is continuing."
Ashworth's contacts report that it is government-supported Arab militias rather than SAF soldiers who are searching vehicles and removing suspected Southern sympathizers along the roads. "The Nuba report that they don't even feel safe in Khartoum," he said.
Like South Kordafan, Blue Nile state also faces uncertainty. It too joined South Sudan's SPLM in fighting the North during civil war, and both received special status under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. But negotiations to establish political and military protocols in the contested areas have never been finalized. That means the states include unreconciled fighting forces from North and South: "We have over 55,000 forces which were part and parcel of the SPLA and they are sons and daughters of the two areas," said Blue Nile Governor Malik Agar, who spoke to reporters in Juba the day after the independence celebrations. "There will be resistance [to disarmament] and then there is going to be war in the two areas and possibly in the whole of Sudan."
Agar is a veteran all the way back to the early days of the civil war, a Muslim and a Northerner who became a steady ally of the South and comrade in arms to Garang, a Christian. I once met Agar in his heavily guarded SPLA compound in Blue Nile, a rebel commander operating on the run. Now he is the duly elected governor of a contested state whose allegiances lie on both sides of the new border. Whether he can officiate as a civilian head of state or as a commander on the run will say much about the future of Sudan and its neighbor, the Republic of South Sudan.
-with reporting by Jamie Dean