Scenes From Southern Sudan

As the erstwhile nation votes to separate itself from Sudan after years of bloody genocide, hope springs eternal -- even for George Clooney.

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Actor George Clooney (Getty Images)

JUBA, SUDAN -- Just as important legal precedents often result from cases involving inconspicuous individuals, sometimes big human events happen in obscure places. This week, much of the world is learning a lesson about the drive for self-determination from watching events in a town called Juba, a dusty boomtown full of paradoxes, home to the dreams of millions.

Juba, the putative capital of what will become Southern Sudan, is what I would imagine an American gold rush town might have looked like a century ago: lots of prefab housing juxtaposed with traditional mud huts (with satellite dishes on top; this ain't your grandparents' Africa). I'm staying at the Beijing Juba Hotel -- the Chinese consulate is located in the same compound -- a wretched place if ever there was one. It looks, and sleeps, like a youth hostel, except that they charge nearly $200 a night for a room in which the shower and toilet are combined. I swear that I can see the streetlights outside through the wall seams.

Here in Juba, where the referendum to separate from Sudan began on Sunday, voter turnout continues be heavy; the process is proceeding smoothly. In order for the referendum to be certified, 60 percent of the estimated 4 million Southern Sudanese who registered must vote. If the referendum passes, Southern Sudan will become Africa's 55th nation.

Southern Sudan is nominally self-governing, the result of a peace agreement reached with the Northern Sudan regime six years ago. But this week is the week to make things permanent, and people are out in droves. There are hundreds of polling places, many in remote areas. But downtown Juba is where the action is, and government officials, international stars and everyday people came early Sunday morning to a polling place named for the late John Garang, the national hero who signed the agreement promising the establishment of an independent nation.

"I am thinking of my father and my grandfather and the spirits who brought us to this day when we can choose for sovereignty," said Pagan Amum, the South's minister for peace and implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Outside the government complex where the voting boxes were located, crowds of people jostled good-naturedly with the local police and security officials, dancing and singing, "Now we are going to be responsible for our futures."

The party vibe continued across the street with 200 members of the Dinka Bor Cultural Club, who were also dancing and singing. "It's a great day! We are going to get our freedom," said the Rev. Peter Deng as he accompanied the group. Deng, who describes himself as a former rebel who was exiled for 20 years, returned to Juba, his hometown, in 2005 after the signing of the peace agreement. "I lost many family members," said Deng, dressed in a cleric's collar, with ritual scars, a trademark of the Dinka people, carved on his face.

Planning for the voting was exhaustive. And although the voting is done using paper balloting, there is little chance that hanging chads will be a problem. Registrants are required to signify their vote with a thumbprint, make their choice behind a curtain and then deposit their folded ballot in a slotted box, all under the scrutiny of an assortment of local and international monitors.

Among the international notables present at the polls is actor George Clooney, who has been a strong advocate of human rights in the region. Showing up for the opening ceremonies sans entourage, Clooney seems cautiously optimistic about the referendum. "This is very dramatic," he tells The Root. "They have come a long way." In the days leading up to the referendum, Clooney and activist John Prendergast have been a constant presence here, traveling the country to assess the situation. (Notably missing from Juba are Don Cheadle, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Joe Madison, black celebrities who have been very outspoken about the crisis here.)

No place is more illustrative of the challenges Sudan faces than Abyei, the tiny region at the nexus of Northern and Southern Sudan. The citizens of Abyei are not voting this week. They will decide their fate only after this referendum has been settled. Yet because Abyei sits on the line between the two sides of Sudan and is home to the country's oil reserves, its voters will have the power to effectively scuttle any deal between the North and South.

Abyei is also home to intense enmity between Arab pastoralists and black African farmers. Disagreements have gotten so intense that the African Union, which is mounting a major Referendum Observer Mission elsewhere, will devote a separate initiative to Abyei in the near future. Fighting has been fierce there; over the weekend, dozens of people were killed. "Abyei is very angry," says Clooney. "This whole thing could fall apart if they don't resolve their issues."