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 CNS Story:

SUDAN-REGISTER Nov-15-2010 (810 words) With photos. xxxi

With enthusiasm, hope, residents of Southern Sudan register to vote

Sarasia Emilio Anisie shows her new registration card and a finger she dipped in ink Nov. 15 as she finished the registration process to vote. (CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

By Paul Jeffrey
Catholic News Service

YAMBIO, Southern Sudan (CNS) -- Citizens of Southern Sudan lined up Nov. 15 to register to vote in a January referendum on whether this war-torn region will split from the country's North.

"People lined up with enthusiasm to register today. They're happy. The lines moved with joy as people showed their love for their country," said Father Thomas Bagbiowia, a parish priest in Riimenze who helped lead the training process for poll workers in Western Equatoria state.

The referendum on independence is scheduled for Jan. 9, and Father Bagbiowia admits he does not know anyone who plans to vote against separating the region from the government in Khartoum.

"We southerners have lived for too many years without independence and freedom. It's time we decide our own destiny. We've lived under fear of a centralized government that did nothing for the economic development of our region. Khartoum today is a modern city, but here in the South we don't even have roads. We southerners have to decide our own destiny," Father Bagbiowia told Catholic News Service.

Observers expect the vote to overwhelmingly favor independence. Voters in Western Equatoria seemed to agree.

"I'm happy we're separating, because we've suffered under those Arabs," said Victor Surur, as he finished registering in the town of Nzara.

Registration was scheduled to continue for 17 days at about 3,000 sites across the country and in eight countries abroad. In order to pass, the January referendum will need at least 60 percent of those who registered to actually cast a ballot.

The vote on independence was mandated by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended nearly five decades of war between northern and southern Sudan. Yet implementing the peace deal has not been easy, and many observers criticize the government in Khartoum for dragging its feet on key provisions while at the same time allegedly working to destabilize the South in the run-up to the vote.

In this thickly forested area of the country near the border with Congo, many believe that attacks over the past two years by the Lord's Resistance Army -- a brutal Ugandan rebel group that has morphed into a transnational terror squad -- have come at the urging of the government in Khartoum, which many here believe is funding the LRA. Thousands of Sudanese families have been displaced, and refugees have fled into Southern Sudan from villages in Congo that have been attacked by the LRA.

Another dispute threatening the success of the January referendum is the future of the fertile border region of Abyei, which has a separate vote scheduled on whether to join the North or the South. The government of Khartoum has insisted that the Misseriya -- a nomadic group that annually visits the Abyei region -- be allowed to vote, a move that has been resisted by the mostly Ngok Dinka residential majority.

Given the conventional wisdom that a peaceful referendum is unlikely here, in September Catholic leaders inaugurated a campaign of 101 days of prayer for a peaceful referendum in Southern Sudan. Sponsored by Solidarity with Southern Sudan -- a network of volunteer Catholic educators and pastoral workers who have come from all over the world to work with the church -- and with support from the Sudan Catholic Bishops' Conference, Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, participants have pledged to accompany the referendum process with prayer so that no matter the outcome of the vote, peace will prevail.

"There are many enemies of peace, but just as they plan for war we're planning for peace," said Father Bagbiowia. "Nothing is impossible for God, so we're praying every day throughout the diocese for a peaceful referendum."

A Catholic nun who has worked in the area under the auspices of Solidarity with Southern Sudan for the past two years said all the threats to the independence vote were forgotten, at least temporarily, as people lined up at registration centers.

"It's the most important thing at the moment," said Sister Josephine Njiru, a sister of Our Lady of the Missions who visited several registration sites.

Sister Njiru, a Kenyan, does education and pastoral work with women and girls. She said many Southern Sudanese youth who can afford it continue to travel to Kenya to study.

"The problem for many of them, however, is that it is difficult to dream of coming back to a country still in chaos," Sister Njiru told CNS.

"People tell me they're going to vote yes, because they want independence. That won't be the end of the matter, though. Women are still being beaten by men. Changing life for all the people is a process that's going to take a long time. With independence, hopefully the new government can focus on education, because if there isn't good education available here for everyone, then the country can be independent, but there won't be any progress."


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