9 January 2011 – Legions of voters converged on polling centres across Southern Sudan today to cast their ballots in the region's long-awaited referendum on self-determination.
Over 3.9 million eligible adults registered to vote in this week's referendum, which asks Southern Sudanese citizens to choose between continued unity with the rest of Sudan or secession. Among the first to mark his ballot was President Salva Kiir Mayardit of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS).
"This is an historic moment the people of Southern Sudan have been waiting for," said Mr. Kiir, who arrived early on Sunday morning in his trademark black hat to vote at the Juba mausoleum honoring the late Southern Sudanese leader John Garang de Mabior.
A countdown clock tower at a Juba roundabout read 0 days, 0 hours and 0 minutes as hundreds of voters lined up outside polling centres in the region's major cities well before balloting was scheduled to begin at 8 a.m.
One of them was Edward Ujama, a recent graduate of Juba University, who arrived at a polling centre in the Kosti district of Wau at 5 a.m. and was the eighty-sixth voter standing in line this morning.
"I am contributing to this historical event that will be of greater value to the coming generation," he said.
Voters in some outlying rural communities trekked long distances before daybreak to reach their designated voting stations.
Maria Thilchuang Nhial and her husband walked for five kilometres from their village of Golok to the Upper Nile State town of Fashoda to cast their ballots. "We are very excited, and that is why we are so committed to vote," said the 36-year-old homemaker.
Many Southern Sudanese were in high spirits as they emerged from the 2,638 polling centres that were established in the region. A 73-year-old man named Pio Tipo Deng leapt in the air and sang a tune at a voting station in the Suora Malakia neighborhood of Malakal this morning after declaring that Southern Sudan had reached the promised land.
The first day of voting was a bittersweet moment for some disabled veterans of the civil war that ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement on this day six years ago.
"I have lost a leg in the war and have come to make sure I cast my vote for the realization of the dream my friends and comrades have died for," said Thuch Abong Lual as he waved his crutches in the air after voting in a tent near the airport in Malakal. "That is freedom."
At least 60 per cent of all voters who registered for the referendum must exercise their franchise to make the outcome legal and binding.
Over 95 per cent of the voters who registered for the referendum live in the country's 10 southern states. Southern Sudan Referendum Commission Deputy Chairperson Justice Chan Reec Madut hailed the massive turnout.
"The turnout today was something we had never seen in our lives," he said at an afternoon press conference in Juba. "We arrived at this day as a result of the determination of the people of Southern Sudan."
The balloting is scheduled to end on the afternoon of Saturday, 15 January. GoSS President Kiir urged citizens to be "patient" if today's lengthy queues at polling centres prevented them from taking part in the first day of balloting.
But some southerners seemed unfazed by the prospect of spending much of the day waiting in line.
"I was in the bush for 25 years," said John Manyeng Moje, the last person in a queue of over 500 voters outside a polling centre in the Central Equatoria State town of Rajaf. "It does not matter if I have to queue until 6 p.m., or even if I have to come back tomorrow. I have to cast my vote."