Abyei, Sudan — A week of polling ended and vote counting began Saturday in a landmark referendum expected to result in the breakup of Africa's largest country into two separate nations.
After 50 years of war and a six-year peace deal, southern Sudanese turned out in high-spirited droves beginning Jan. 9 in a secession vote promised under a 2005 U.S.-brokered peace deal to end the long conflict between Sudan's undeveloped African south and its Arab government in the north.
Independence fervor was on display in the south during the weeks leading up to the vote, and jubilant voters often waited hours in long lines under the scorching sun to cast their ballot. Complete results will not be released for at least another two weeks, but the outcome is expected to be crushingly in favor of forming a new nation.
"This vote is the final nail in the coffin of our suffering as southern Sudanese," said Taban Francis, a 31-year civil servant in Juba, the southern capital. "I hope this vote will bring us to an autonomous country."
Despite concerns that the vote would re-erupt old violence or founder logistically in a region with almost no paved roads, the voting process itself proceeded quietly with few complications.
"The voting went very well," George Maker Benjamin, Southern Sudan Referendum Commission spokesman, said Saturday. "There have been no problems at all."
According to polling data, voter turnout could exceed 90 percent, well above the 60 percent needed to render the poll legitimate and binding, Benjamin said.
The peaceful election is likely to be seen as an achievement of international diplomacy, which heavily pressured the Sudanese government in Khartoum to fulfill its side of the peace pact, even if it meant losing a third of its land and 80 percent of its oil reserves.
The United Nations has two peacekeeping missions in Sudan, and the African Union mediated negotiations between the two sides. The U.S., largely responsible for the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which promised the referendum, dedicated a full-time special envoy to Sudan and promised rewards to the Sudanese regime — led by Omar al-Bashir, indicted for genocide at the International Criminal Court for crimes in Darfur — if it allowed the vote to move forward.
The top U.S. official to visit Sudan over the referendum, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, praised Bashir for pledging to respect the outcome of the poll and build friendly relations with a new southern state.
With an internationally recognized independent southern Sudan state now looking likely later this year, attention will switch focus to the plethora of complications involved in tearing apart the 55-year old nation, including a disputed border, oil, debt and citizenship.
Chief on the list of immediate concerns is Abyei, a small region along the border contested by both sides, the most explosive border flashpoint. The area — described as Sudan's Kashmir or Jerusalem — turned violent last weekend as its own special referendum on which side to join did not occur as agreed under the 2005 pact.
On Jan. 7-9, clashes broke out between a militia group of the Misseriya, a northern nomadic group that traditionally uses Abyei for seasonal grazing, and southern security forces protecting the Ngok Dinka community, which plans to join Abyei with their ethnic kin in the seceding south.
The fighting outside the village of Maker Abyior within Abyei killed at least 39 and possibly more than twice that number, according to varying figures given by southern and northern officials and community leaders.
"We know there will be no referendum in Abyei, and it's not fair," said Ajing Kuol, a 70-year-old Ngok Dinka who returned from Khartoum, Sudan's capital, on Dec. 17 along with thousands of others in recent weeks who fled Abyei during the war. He now lives on the cracked ground of an open-air camp along with 1,400 other returnees, just outside a mud hut village of only 5,000 people supporting them with basic food and water.
"We are supposed to have the option to join the south, and now that right is not there," he said. "If fighting comes again, we will die here if we must. We are not leaving again. This is our home."
(Mugume Davis contributed from Juba, southern Sudan.)
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.)