Sudanese vote in Omaha


January 14th, 2011

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Omaha, NE – Thousands of Sudanese refugees came to Omaha to vote in a referendum for independence this week. Now, the waiting begins, and the question of whether their votes will be counted, and their voices heard will soon be known.

David Deng Makuach and his family traveled from Iowa to vote in the Sudanese referendum. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

In the cramped offices of the Sudanese Referendum Polling Center in North Omaha, a dozen or so polling workers and official observers sat together and enjoyed a spread of traditional African food. It’s been a busy week. Southern Sudanese refugees have traveled from all over the region to get to the polls – first to register their names and now to vote. Banak Kuath is a Polling Center Manager. He said it’s been exciting to see his fellow expatriates make the journey. The vote, which continues through Saturday, kicked off last Sunday – in the bitter cold of a coming snow storm.

“That was why on Sunday, we had people that waited in line for five to six hours in the cold,” he said. “They were chanting, singing songs, they did not want to leave their station so that they can vote. People are really happy to do this.”

The vote will decide whether Southern Sudan will split from the North and form its own independent country. It’s the final step in a peace process between rebel fighters in the south, and a government in the north whose ruler, President Omar Al Bashir, has been declared a war criminal. While the mood at the polls has been lighthearted, and the vote viewed as historic, what happens next is still uncertain. Many fear the country will plunge back into civil war. David Deng Makuach traveled with his wife and three children from Des Moines, Iowa. He is the Chairman of that state’s chapter of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

“If there’s a war that’s going to take place because of referendum, I don’t care… We’re still going to get independence. It will not block us from self-determination. We vote to get the freedom.”

Nyawal Dak, an older woman with glassy blue eyes, has lived in Omaha since 2005. She’s hopeful about the future of her country, and sees it in a simple light. Life has always been bad in Southern Sudan, she said, and if the vote for independence goes through, life will be good.

Speaking through a translator, Dak suggested nothing bad will happen if the South separates from the North. “We will be peaceful in our country. South will be a peaceful country.”

Almost four million Southern Sudanese reportedly registered to vote within Sudan and around the world. Within the country, tensions have risen along the proposed border, but the vote has gone on. It’s widely expected Southern Sudanese will overwhelmingly favor independence. But if it’s granted, the new government will have generations of poverty and a ravaged, war-torn nation to rebuild.

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