You can hear the sound of the singing and chanting before you can see the crowd. Fifty people pour forward churning up the dust as they dance and run towards one of the polling stations in Kakuma Refugee camp, northern Kenya. Since 1992 when thousands of ‘lost boys’ walked out of Sudan 130
kilometres to the north, Kakuma refugee camp has been one of the main
places of exile for thousands of Southern Sudanese. They have waited here ever since. Now they say they are ready - ‘this is the journey to freedom,’ people keep repeating.
Today is the first day of voting for a referendum that could create the newest country in the world: Southern Sudan.
The crowd of women, children, and men sing:
‘The North will remain alone. And the South will remain alone.’
‘God is with us and will make it so.’
They break into battle songs remembered from the 22 years of war between the north and south. A large Southern Sudanese flag hovers and flies, bright against the blue sky in the brutal 50-degree-Celsius-heat. Some of the young men look like boys playing soldier as they hang onto pieces of wood as though they are guns. The hope is so great but the risk of failure frighteningly large.
Kenya has the largest number of overseas voters for this historic referendum. Many of them are refugees living in the limbo of camps set up and run by the United Nations. But this week these people are also voting whether mainly Christian South Sudan will secede from the Arab, Muslim North. 15,062 Southern Sudanese are registered to vote here, says Michael Deng, the Referendum Commission representative in Kenya.
They are ordinary women like Rebecca Nyalyik, who lost her right leg and four children in the war. She leans forward on her prosthetic limb, while a small beaded cross swings at her chest.
‘I’ve waited my whole life for independence,’ she says. ‘We don’t want slavery anymore.’
Nyalyik lost her youngest child to a bomb attack on her village. Another child died of malnutrition and sickness. Nyalyik blames his death on years of neglect from the government in Khartoum that has left much of Southern Sudan without health clinics, roads or schools. Nyalyik’s final two children died ‘fighting for freedom’, she says.
‘Even if there was just one child left behind in our community I would tell them to fight for freedom,’ she says.
Like many of the widows of Kakuma, Nyalyik spent the eve of the referendum at the Catholic Church praying for God to help with independence. All the Christian denominations of the Southern Sudanese community of Kakuma gathered in the simple concrete building, beneath the corrugated tin roof. A glaring poster of Mary holding baby Jesus and pink paper letters cut stuck to the grey concrete declaring ‘Mer.. Chris …as’ was the only decoration.
‘Jesus, the mighty one, will separate Sudan for us,’ the Reverend said as he led the congregation in worship. Two drums were the only instrument as the mainly female gathering whooped, clapped and occasionally wept. Children settled on the concrete floor and on their mother’s hips while a hand-painted Southern Sudanese flag had been painted on the altar cloth.
For the 5,000 registered voters at the camp there are high hopes that separation will bring peace and a return to their homes after decades of waiting.
‘I say that Southern Sudan is the land of honey,’ says Rebecca Nyagony Chol, a woman’s leader in the camp, ‘There is oil, fish, water and it is always green.’
On the dusty streets lined with parched brambles and World Food Programme tin cans hammered flat, men sit around radios, listening for news.
‘People are not sleeping,’ Nyagony Chol says. ‘They are worried about the referendum and thinking about the people we have lost and asking if it is possible to go back to our own land – and praying.’
If the prayers don’t ensure separation some of the refugees here say they will try other means.
‘I am ready to fight,’ shouts an 18-year-old Nuer woman, who arrived at the voting booth on 9 January, two hours before voting officially started at 8 am. ‘If they do not let us separate I will do my part. Of course I will fight for my rights,’ she says. Like many of the youth who have grown up in Kenya she has no memory of the country she says she would die to save. Her mother carried her across the border when she was two years old. But there are fears as well.
‘I am so worried about going back because now I am grown up and people over there don’t know me well,’ says Roda Yomkone, a 32-year-old from the Dinka community, ‘I don’t know anybody.’
Agustino Loro, a Dinka community leader in the camp, says he had to persuade his community that registering to vote would not mean an end to the food rations the 80,000 refugees from various countries need for survival. Although almost no-one in Kakuma will tell you they will vote for anything other than secession, there have been no reports of people flooding back across the border to Sudan just yet. Indeed camp authorities have contingency plans in place in case things turn sour after the referendum. They have supplies for up to 20,000 new Sudanese arrivals in case violence returns.
The Kenyan Commissioner for Refugee Affairs arrives in Kakuma this week to negotiate more land to extend the camp. The acting camp manager says this is for new arrivals, either from Somalia simmering to the East or in case, despite the many hopes, the referendum does not bring the peace the Southern Sudanese in Kakuma have been waiting for for almost two decades.
Becky Palmstrom is a writer and contributor to New Internationalist magazine.