South Sudanese Celebrate Freedom Before Vote

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WATCH Southern Sudan Votes on Independence

More than 20 police officers were killed and 30 others wounded in an attack by Arab militia-men in the disputed border region of Abyei as voting began on an independence referendum for South Sudan, officials said today.

A military spokesman told reporters the tribesmen used anti-tank weapons and artillery, indicating they were being supported by north Sudan's military. Khartoum has denied the allegation.

Abyei, oil-rich region which straddles the border between north and south Sudan, is considered a flashpoint in the negotiations over South Sudan independence. It was supposed to hold a separate vote over whether it would stay part of Sudan or become part of the new South Sudan, but disputes over territory and voter population have blocked the election from happening.

Actor George Clooney recently visited Abyei while in Sudan to monitor the vote. Clooney and John Prendergrast of the Enough Project have been calling attention to the possibility of violence surrounding this referendum for the last year, even helping to fund the Sudan Sentinel project which uses satellite technology to try and monitor military build-ups on the border and human rights abuses.

"If you listen to the State Department, if you listen to the intelligence agencies, if you listen to the president of the United States, if you listen to any analyst here...this place has the greatest chance to be the largest conventional war of the 21st century," Clooney told ABC News. "We're trying to stop a war before it starts."

Results won't be announced until next month, but that hasn't stopped the nearly 4 million southerners from celebrating the independence they believe they are assured to win.

Signs all over South Sudan's capital Juba are pro-separation, and anti-Khartoum. "Bye Bye Bashir" read one banner, referring to the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The long standing animosity between the Islamic north and the largely Christian and animist south has fueled a 20-year civil war that killed more than 2 million people.

South Sudan Celebrates Freedom They Expect to Win in This Week's Vote

Stephen Thot fought with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, known as the SPLM, more than two decades ago. After losing an eye in a gun battle, he left Sudan and became a refugee, eventually settling in Lincoln, Neb.

Thot says he was living a nice life in the United States with his wife and five children, working in a church. But then the unexpected happened – a peace agreement was signed between the Khartoum government and the SPLM in 2005. He knew he had to come home and fight for his country again, only this time with vote instead of a gun.

"I even told the Americans when I had my interview to go there that when there is peace in my country I will go back," says Thot.

Countless southerners have stories of repression they've experienced at the hands of their northern counterparts. Thousands who were living in north have packed up all of their belongings and returned. The UN estimates that at least 2,000 southerners are returning every day. Most have no jobs, no place to live and very few prospects for a better life. Still, they say it's better than what they left behind.

Thot's been back in Juba for more than three years working as a police major. He left his wife and children behind in Nebraska. South Sudan may be relatively peaceful now, but it remains one of the poorest regions in the world. Roughly twice the size of California, less than 100 miles of roads are paved. The literacy rate is less than 30 percent and years of war, both with the north and between competing southern rebel groups, have left the country with almost no infrastructure.

As much as he loves his home, it's still not a place to raise his American- born children, says Thot. But he also says his decision to leave was as much about his children as it was for himself. "I told them 'you were born here in America. Your country is free. But not your homeland. Let me go and fight for it to be free too."

For Thot, all the sacrifices he's made over the last 20 years: losing his eye, being a refugee in foreign lands, leaving behind his wife and children, have all been worth it.

Wiping tears from his eyes, he says that he never believed this day would come for South Sudan.

"If we lost the referendum I would feel very bad about what I've lost," he says. "But if we finally have freedom I won't care. Freedom is the most important thing."