Southern Sudanese have begun voting on whether to become an independent nation.
Southern President Salva Kiir went first in the southern capital Juba, leaving the ballot box to cheers from southerners waiting patiently for their turn.
Many had been waiting since the middle of the night, waking up in the morning to countless cameras and journalists from all over the world gathered at the John Garang memorial to record the referendum.
The week of voting is the long awaited culmination of a 2005 peace deal between north and south Sudan. After years of negotiations, mediated by the United States, north and south signed a deal that ended 21 years of civil war that killed more than two-million southerners and displaced about four million.
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According to the referendum commission’s southern office, more than 20,000 election observers and 1,000 journalists are registered in the south to cover the vote. The southern ruling party’s secretary general, Pagan Amum, said this presence was the culmination of the West’s long history of engagement with Southern Sudan.
“We are happy that the world is accompanying Southern Sudan today as it is being born,” he said.
Among the leading organizations monitoring the vote is the Atlanta-based Carter Center. Former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, led the Carter Center’s delegation to Southern Sudan.
Carter and Annan toured some of the voting centers in Juba on Sunday, meeting poll workers and taking in the excited atmosphere in the south.
“Reports we have had from all over the nation, north and south, so far have been that everything is calm and peaceful and that the people seem to be very enthusiastic about voting,” said Carter.
When Carter and Annan visited St. Theresa Bakhita Kator Primary School in Juba, about 100 Sudanese were lined up in the school’s courtyard. Dusty and treeless, the courtyard seemed like an unpleasant place to stand in line.
But no one seemed to mind, this was the vote many had waited decades to cast. According to Annan, that is part of what made this vote so special.
“This is democracy at its most basic, where people are choosing how and by whom they wish to be governed,” he said.
The voting will last for one week, until the 15th of January, and it will take up to a month before the final results are announced. At the end of the first day of voting, the referendum that many doubted would ever happen now appears to be a routine and joyous exercise.