International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Southern Sudan: Referendum Day!

A historic vote

  • Polling site flag in Juba, Southern Sudan on January 9, 2011
  • Alexander Oyet, 78, holds up his voter's card
  • Line outside polling site in Juba, Southern Sudan
  • A little boy carries a plastic chair at a polling site in Juba, Sothern Sudan
  • Pasquale Ongwen smiles at the entrance to the polling site
  • Pasquale Ongwen casts his vote
  • Pasquale Ongwen and his wife Margaret (with one of their six children)

The IRC's Sophia Mwangi spent the day with a friend and IRC colleague, Pasquale Ongwen, as he joined millions of others in Sudan to vote in the referendum on self-determination on January 9, 2011.

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On Sunday I had a chance to witness the first day of a referendum in which the people of Southern Sudan will decide whether to remain part of a united Sudan — Africa’s largest nation — or to secede and become the world’s newest independent country.  Here are some of my impressions of that day: 

Today I waited in a line for five hours. I’ve never waited in line for that long – ever!  But this was different. I decided to spend the morning with a friend and IRC colleague, Pasquale Ongwen, 38, as he joined millions of others in Sudan to vote in the referendum on self-determination.  The voting period ends on Saturday, but today day one is the day when many people went to the polls.

I arrived at Pasquale’s home in a sprawling residential suburb of Juba at 8:00 this morning and was greeted by Pasquale’s father Alexander, 78, a lively retired primary school teacher.  “I have waited more than fifty years for this day,” Alexander told me. He explained why this day had so much significance for him – he was thinking about the next generation.  “I hope that my grandchildren will have a bright and better future,” he explained. Pasquale and his wife Margaret, 32, have six children, aged from one to 12 years old.

As we left to go to the polling station, Pasquale told me that he was feeling very excited to cast his vote. When we arrived at the school that is serving as a polling station this week, there were already very long queues. “People have decided to come out early and on the first day,” explained Pasquale.  We learned that some people had arrived as early as 2am.

The voter registration cards that each person needed to show when they entered the polling station had numbers on them which determined which queue you went in. There were three queues entering three different buildings on the school compound. At this point Pasquale and I went in one queue, Alexander in another and Margaret in a third. We didn’t see them until later in the day.

As more people started to arrive there was definitely a sense of anticipation and excitement in the air. Some people brought chairs, others sat on large rocks. The odd transistor radio could be heard from time to time.  When a popular referendum song started playing, voters, young and old, started singing and swaying from side to side to the reggae beat.  “We are all in one boat. We are moving ahead even if it’s shaking a bit we are still moving ahead,” went the lyrics. 

Most people were dressed in their Sunday best and planned to go to church after voting.  After a few hours the church in the school compound started its service. It wasn’t long before lively music bellowed out of the open doors and windows. Almost as if on cue some of the women in the line began singing along to a well known African hymn.  When the chorus came even more people joined in the rousing “Hallelujah, Africa! Hallelujah, Africa!”

Three hours in, I asked Pasquale whether he was tired of waiting in line for so long, “Waiting for a few hours is worth it,” he told me. “We’ve been waiting for almost six years, this is the last step.”   He was referring to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2005 which officially ended the war between the North and the South of Sudan and paved the way to this historic day. “One has to at least wait,” Pasquale continued. “It’s not a problem at all.” The unflaggingly festive mood in line told us that this was the sentiment of his fellow voters as well.
After five hours of waiting, the moment finally came.  With my camera at the ready, I started taking pictures of Pasquale casting his ballot. When he left the polling station, holding up his inky left index finger as proof that he had voted, he said, “I’m feeling very relieved. It’s like what Dr. John Garang said. It’s the ‘final walk to freedom’ to cast the vote and I’ve made my decision in a secret ballot.”

By the time we left the polling station to take the short walk back to Pasquale’s home, the sun was high in the sky and it was very hot. I thought about all those people still waiting in line in the scorching heat, but not minding because this was a day that most of them had been waiting for most -- if not all -- of their lives.  After a short silence I could tell that Pasquale had been caught up in thought. He then said, “You know, Sophia, no one was expecting that this referendum was going to take place on time. But it did. It has been a huge achievement.”

Back home we found Alexander already there, relaxing in the shade with a soda. The children were playing nearby with toys they had made from empty plastic containers. As I sat down to join him, Alexander, raising his left index finger, exclaimed, “At last I have done it and I am very happy! Let us wait now and see!”  Margaret echoed him. “I feel very happy too,” she said. “I’ve cast my vote. I’m hoping that my children will have a chance for a better education.”

As we said our goodbyes I felt privileged to have waited in line with Pasquale and captured the moment he contributed to the making of history.

Note: Sophia met up with Pasquale again for South Sudan's Indpendence Day celebration on July 9, 2011. Read her photo blog here.

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