Dressed in ragged clothes and leaning on a cane, Alex Modi Wani hobbled slowly out of the polling station in his village after casting his vote for independence. "This," he said quietly, "is the start of my life."
The grey-haired man, who is uncertain of his age, was badly injured by an army bullet in 1997 during Sudan's long civil war. He pulls up a pant leg to show the deep scars. Hardly able to walk, he is now unemployed, dependent on his family.
He has waited decades for the moment when he could vote for the independence of southern Sudan. Now, on the first day of the south's referendum on secession, that moment has arrived.
"It's been a long time," he mused. "All those years we were suffering - we always hoped for peace. We need freedom. It means that my children will never suffer like I did."
For generations of war-weary people in southern Sudan, the referendum that began on Sunday marks their liberation from a half century of bloodshed and conflict under Khartoum's Islamic regime. Official results won't be announced until next month, but there is little doubt that the referendum will show overwhelming support for secession, triggering the split-up of Africa's biggest country.
Serafina Poni, 58, threw her arms in the air and shouted ecstatically to passersby as she left a polling station in Juba after casting her ballot for independence. "I've done it," she yelled. "It's over. If I die today, I will go straight to heaven."
Of her eight children, only two survived the war. The other six were killed during the many years of brutal fighting between the northern army and the southern rebels. "We were burned, killed, chased from our churches and chased from place to place," she said. "But now I am very happy. Peace will come to my children."
There were huge lineups at most polling stations on Sunday, with voters eager to cast their ballot. Some voters walked for hours to reach the stations. Many arrived before dawn, or even the night before, sleeping on the ground. Some still had flashlights in their hands when the polls opened at 8 a.m.
One voter, army officer Peter Kur Arou, said he had been waiting for seven hours and still hadn't reached the front of the queue by 11 a.m. "But I could stand here for 70 hours, as long as I vote," he said. "If voting is the end of all the fighting, I can wait for it."
In rural districts, referendum officials were patiently explaining the rules to villagers who had rarely if ever voted in their lives. Young mothers handed their babies to polling officials while they carefully put their thumbprint on their ballots.
In one village, the polling station was plastered with pro-secession advertisements. When this was pointed out to the official in charge, he sheepishly tore down the posters.
Jada Jedid, a 32-year-old teacher in the village of Jukokwe, arrived early to make sure he was one of the first to vote. "This is the best day in the whole of my life," he said. "We are going to be independent. We've been living under other people, but we want to be first-class citizens, not third-class citizens. That's why we are saying 'bye' to them."
Despite the long queues and delays, the voting was proceeding smoothly in most places. By the end of the day, about 30 per cent of registered voters had already cast ballots in some polling stations, even though the referendum will continue for six more days. It is increasingly clear that the voter turnout will easily top the 60 per cent minimum required to make the referendum valid.
"Overall, things are going really well," said John Lewis, a Canadian who is monitoring the election as an official observer for an African church group. "It's very busy, with people turning up in very large numbers."
He said he noticed only one problem in the voting process: a "bottleneck" of delays caused by the need to explain to voters how to cast their ballots.
U.S. Senator John Kerry, who has been playing a key role in negotiations between southern and northern Sudan, said he was "moved and impressed" by the emotional scenes at the polling stations. He said the long queues of voters could be an inspiration to the United States, where voter apathy and low turnout rates are common.
In some polling stations, there were verbal clashes and exchanges of insults because of "over-excitement" and exhaustion among voters who had waited for hours to vote, organizers said.
The deputy head of southern Sudan's referendum commission, Chan Reek Madut, urged voters to remain calm in the long queues. The heavy voter turnout is "unlike anything I've ever seen in my life," he said.
"I understand their feelings and emotions, but my advice is that they should maintain their cool."
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