South Sudan: "We are free! We are free!"
July 10, 2011 by Sophia Jones
|IRC field manager Pasquale Ongwen watches the flag of the Republic of South Sudan being raised for the first time. Photo: Sophia Jones-Mwangi/IRC|
JUBA, South Sudan - July 9, 2011 - Six months ago I stood in line for five hours with my friend and colleague Pasquale Ongwen in Juba as he waited to cast his vote in the referendum which would determine whether South Sudan would split from the north. The vote was almost unanimous: independence.
Fast-forward six months and here I was with Pasquale again, not in an orderly queue of several hundred people, but in a vast crowd of tens of thousands, to witness the birth of the world’s newest nation – the Republic of South Sudan.
Today all around Juba, now the capital city, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate.
I met Pasquale at the memorial to John Garang, the “father” and leader of the South Sudanese, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005. The crash happened just a few months after the signing of the peace agreement which ended the brutal 21-year civil war between north and south. There are still suspicions that it wasn’t simply an accident.
After a thorough security check we made our way through the masses and found a spot to stand in a field outside the memorial stadium. There were speeches, dances, singing and presentations in the stadium. The atmosphere outside was buzzing with excitement and anticipation.
Some of the people around us were dressed in traditional costumes, others wore suits and party dresses. Many people wore tee-shirts emblazoned with flags and slogans: “Free at Last” and “Happy Birthday, South Sudan” were two of the most popular ones.
The crowd was so thick that we couldn’t really follow what was going on. I asked Pasquale whether he minded. “Of course not!” he said. “It’s history and I am here to see it happening.”
Groups had come from all over the country representing various ethnic backgrounds, religious affiliations, and youth and women’s groups. As the sun moved higher into the sky, these groups sporadically danced and marched. Then a group of soldiers made their way to what looked like a statue covered with the Sudanese flag. We had been wondering what it was. They stood in formation before it, just a few feet in front of us.
We soon realized that the statue was of John Garang. Someone in the crowd excitedly said that South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, was going to unveil it. Pasquale and I realized that we had inadvertently stood in what was probably one of the best vantage points for the day’s celebrations.
We all had flags of South Sudan in our hands. When the President finally walked past, the flags went up into the air amid shouts and cheers, and stayed there waving to and fro. As the striking, seven-foot-high statue was unveiled, I noticed that the figure of John Garang held a stick in his right hand, pointing toward a very tall, still empty flag pole. The national flag is a powerful symbol. Imagine what it must be like for a new nation and its people to see its flag officially raised.
As the flag of the Republic of South Sudan was slowly raised for the first time, the shouts, cheers and screams were almost deafening. People hugged and kissed one another and most, if not all, cried. One woman fell to her knees, tears streaming down her cheeks. Reaching her arms toward the heavens in a prayer of thanks, she shouted at the top of her voice, “We are free! We are free!” As I dried the tears from my own eyes, a lady came up to me, arms outstretched, and hugged me close.
Behind every tear of joy, I knew that there was also sorrow – sorrow at the loss of loved ones, the sorrow of having to flee one’s homeland because of war. However, I also knew that those tears were filled with hope.
Later, I asked Pasquale why he too had cried. “Many people lost their lives for this day,” he told me. “I was paying homage to our fallen heroes because they made this day possible.”
We spoke about Pasquale’s father, Alexander, who sadly died only a few months before his own dreams of South Sudan’s independence came true. Even at the height of the war and through life in exile in Uganda, Alexander had assured his family that they would one day have freedom. His presence today was greatly missed.
When I met Alexander on January 9, as he went to vote in the referendum, he told me that he hoped independence would bring a "bright and better future” for his grandchildren. Pasquale is carrying on his father’s optimism -- although he does have this advice for the country’s fledgling government: Provide equal opportunities for jobs, education and development. Only if this happens, he says, will the children of South Sudan have a chance for a brighter future.
Today I saw what independence looks and feels like – a once-in-a-lifetime experience for which I am truly grateful.