Alexandria Guot Juac, now slightly graying, was one of the Southern Sudanese who came to vote in Alexandria this week. Like many young Sudanese boys, Juac became a soldier at the age of 11, observing the violence that consumed his country for over two decades firsthand. On Monday, he used the power of the ballot to take a step towards a new beginning for Southern Sudan.
Despite the winter cold and threats of snow, area Sudanese voters turned out in droves to cast their ballots in a ground-breaking independence referendum that would allow Southern Sudan to secede from the national Sudanese government. Voting will continue both in Sudan and in international locations, including Alexandria, until Saturday, Jan. 15. Alexandria is one of three international voting sites in the country.
Juac emigrated to the United States in 1995 to escape the Sudanese civil war, which ravaged the country for 22 years, and now owns a small business in Arlington. Juac voted for South Sudanese independence out of a desire for a more peaceful Sudan, believing that this referendum is "the right way to stop the war."
Voter turnout in Alexandria thus far has been notably high, according to Jenan Deng, information and documentation officer of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC). Deng described a line of avid voters stretching down the block as early as 6 a.m.
Southern Sudan was established as an autonomous region following the end of the Second Sudanese Civil War, via a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement. According to the CIA World Factbook, Sudan is largely sectioned by religion, as the northern region is predominantly Sunni Muslim and the southern region is largely Christian, or traditional animist. Even over five years after the end of the civil war, Sudan remains one of the major sources of refugees and asylum-seekers in the world, via the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The referendum is run by the SSRC, which is an entity separate from the Sudanese government. Voting privileges are limited to current citizens of Southern Sudan.
U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-10), who has long been an ally of Southern Sudan and currently acts as the co-chair of the Congressional Sudan Caucus, visited the Alexandria voting site on Monday. He was accompanied by U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) chairman Leonard Leo and commissioner Nina Shea. Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, Head of the Government of Southern Sudan's Mission to the United States, was also on hand on Monday morning.
"What is taking place here is so important," said Wolf, addressing reporters outside of the voting site. He paralleled the Sudanese struggle and the impending birth of Southern Sudan as an independent nation to America's "fight for freedom" in the late 18th century, and stressed the significance of a peaceful Sudan to American national security.
Voters and diplomats alike all spoke of the week's events with hope, mitigated by varied levels of temperance. Juac hoped that the referendum would lead to an independent Southern Sudan, but worried that the religious conflicts within Sudan would prevent lasting peace from being established. Still, he expressed hope that someday he could return to a peaceful Southern Sudan, declaring, "If there is stable peace, I hope to go back in the future."
Leo put the referendum in historical context: "It's not every day that a new nation is born."
Lol Gatkuoth gave voice to the psychological change about to be effected on a country plagued for centuries by violence and war. "Finally," he said, "we decide our future."