South Sudan: Amid Violence, a New Nation Is Born

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The Republic of South Sudan is entering the world as its 193rd nation with an overjoyed population that views this moment of freedom as decades in the making.

As the clock ticked to 12:01 a.m. Saturday local time, according to The Associated Press, local residents danced in the streets, banged on cans and changed the name of the new country's president, Salva Kiir.

VIP's from all over the globe are taking part in the official celebrations Saturday. Even the Vatican has sent a representative. The United States has also sent a high-profile delegation led by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Colin Powell.

They are all there to witness the birth of South Sudan, which gains its independence just six years after ending a bloody civil war with the north that killed more than two million people.

The United States has been involved in the Sudanese peace process for many years. In 2005, George Bush sent Powell, then the U.S. secretary of state, to the region to broker a comprehensive peace agreement that would end the 20-year conflict and begin the road to independence for the south. In the years since, two U.S. administrations have worked to make sure the independence referendum was held without a hitch, appointing special envoys to the region and being intimately involved in the delicate negotiations that followed.

But after the party is over, real questions remain about just how viable this new country will be. Decades of war have left the region as one of the world's poorest. Roughly the size of Texas, South Sudan has less than 100 miles of paved roads, and basic infrastructure such as electricity and water are scarce. It also has an illiteracy rate of more than 70 percent and one of the highest infant mortality rates in Africa.

Since the referendum in January, the young nation has also been dealing with thousands of returnees from the north and abroad without the resources to support them.

"This is a fragile and fraught moment as well," Ambassador Rice told reporters. "It cannot and must not be taken for granted."

For all the bleak indicators, the people of South Sudan, who voted almost unanimously for independence, remain hopeful. They say that even with all of the problems, freedom from Khartoum's repressive regime now gives South Sudan the chance to determine it's own destiny. A right it hasn't had for more than 50 years.

Sentino Makuac, 19, was born in northern Sudan, near Khartoum. Though his family hails from the south, Khartoum is the only home he's ever known. During the referendum in January he and his family picked up and moved back to Juba, the capital of South Sudan. They left their jobs, their schools, their homes, and arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. Makuac's family, like thousands of returnees, came back without a promise of work or housing. But the promise of freedom was more than enough motivation to return.

"Here, we have rights, as compared to the situation back in Khartoum," Makuac told ABC News. "Life in Khartoum was difficult because people would always question us ... and this was done in a manner that put your life at risk. But ever since we came to Juba, it has been easy and we can talk freely."

He is hoping that the government will eventually provide his family with land and a place to live. Those expectations, however, are exactly what humanitarian organizations fear. The new government and aid agencies have been overwhelmed with not only returnees, but also refugees from recent violence in the border regions taking place in the lead-up to independence.

"South Sudan will be born into crisis," said Susan Purdin, who oversees the International Rescue Committee's aid programs in South Sudan. "Widening violence is triggering more displacement, threatening the lives of vulnerable civilians and hampering access to communities in need while an existing humanitarian emergency grows worse."

Conflict in recent months in the oil-rich border area of Abyei, which was supposed to have a separate referendum to determine which country it will be a part of, saw tens of thousands of people displaced as northern troops took over the area, unilaterally declaring it a part of the north.

The border region of South Kordofan, which will definitely be a part of the north, has also seen conflict, with more than 100,000 people being displaced and unknown casualties from clashes between northern troops and southern-allied rebels. The United Nations has warned that without intervention the area could be on the verge of another genocide similar to Darfur.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir is also attending the festivities. Earlier this week, he reportedly gave a fiery speech at a political rally in which he warned that even though Sudan will be "welcoming" of it's new southern neighbor, there will be no negotiation on additional rights in South Kordofan and the Nuba mountains, another border area belonging to the north but with strong southern ties.

Bashir added there is little room left for negotiation on Darfur.

Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide charges related to Darfur, has promised in the past that following secession Sudan will return to strict sharia law. The speech was seen by analysts as a show of strength by Bashir, who is being blamed by hard-liners as well as some moderates in Sudan for allowing one-third of the country, which holds nearly all the oil reserves, to leave.

Throughout the peace process leading to independence, the United States has held out a significant carrot to Khartoum telling the regime that if it implements the 2005 agreement, Sudan could be removed from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, which carries its own sanctions designations.

Rice has said, however, that until all of the peace agreement issues are resolved, Sudan will remain on the list. Those issues include citizenship laws, oil revenue sharing and determining the final status of Abyei.

In the meantime, the Obama administration is giving the fledgling Republic of South Sudan as much help as possible to get on its feet. In September, the U.S. will host a conference in Washington, D.C. to help develop private investment in South Sudan and ensure the country is ready for investment. The conference is in addition to the $300 million in aid the administration has already given for government and infrastructure projects.

The commitment of both the new government of South Sudan and the international community is why people like Makuac say they are willing to be patient to see real progress.

"Life's been difficult because of the war and having to live with these people [from the north] for all this time," he said. "Now we have our own government and a system that is in place. Let us now have our own country with which our rights will be respected and which we will be responsible for."