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A southern Sudanese walks past a pro-secession poster (L) on the entrance of a general marchandise shop in Juba on January 7, 2011, as one of the world's poorest regions finally prepared to have its say on independence after a 50-year wait with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announcing in a television interview that southern Sudanese would be considered foreigners with certain benefits if the south votes for independence.

Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images/Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Most of the shops on Kator Street are shuttered and empty. Their owners, Arabic-speaking northerners who migrated to Juba for business, have fled back to their homes in northern Sudan, worried by rumours of looming violence.

The shopkeepers were frightened by dire predictions that anti-northern riots and revenge attacks could erupt when the southerners celebrate their expected victory in the secession referendum this week. But the rumours were false. Peace and calm have prevailed. And now the shopkeepers are cautiously phoning their friends on Kator Street. "Is it safe to come back?" they are asking.

"Everything is okay - you should come back and open your shop," Osman al-Haj Ali tells the shopkeepers who rang his cellphone this week.

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Mr. Ali is himself a northerner, and a veteran of Kator Street, a row of shops selling electronics and other goods in the capital of southern Sudan. He was one of those who refused to join the exodus of fleeing northerners. "These rumours were just propaganda by Khartoum," he says. "There are no problems here."

In the referendum on southern independence, one of the biggest potential flashpoints is the question of minority rights: the rights of northerners in the south, and southerners in the north. Would the split-up of Sudan, combined with the lingering emotions from decades of civil war, trigger a wave of retaliation against minorities in each side of the country - as happened, most notoriously, during the 1947 partition of India?

Human-rights groups have urged the two governments to reassure the minorities that their rights will be protected, possibly with a system of dual citizenship. But the north has rejected the idea of dual citizenship, and many minorities on both sides are anxious and fearful that they could be persecuted or expelled.

So far - in the south at least - those fears seem overblown. There have been no reports of revenge attacks by the majority against the minority in most of southern Sudan. If the situation remains peaceful, it bodes well for a potentially smooth transition to southern independence by a July deadline.

The seven-day referendum is not scheduled to end until Saturday, but already the voter turnout has exceeded the 60-per-cent minimum required to validate the final result.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said the region looked set for nationhood. "There is no doubt about the legitimacy of the election as far as the number of voters is concerned," he said. "The likelihood is that the referendum result will be for independence, although we won't know until probably the first week of February."

Canadian MP Glen Pearson, an official observer at the referendum, predicts that secession will be supported by more than 90 per cent of southern voters. "I have absolutely no doubt that it will be 90 to 95 per cent for secession," he said in an interview.

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In the markets of Juba, most of the northern traders trekked back across the northern border before the referendum began. "Their families in Khartoum were putting pressure on them to go home," Mr. Ali said.

Mr. Ali, who sells mattresses and plastic furniture at his small shop, has lived in Juba for 18 years. Some of his northern friends are amazed that he walks in the streets at night in his jelabiya, a traditional Arab robe. "They think I'll be killed," he laughs.

In reality, the situation in Juba keeps improving every year, he says. "People's lives keep getting better, and they behave better. Everybody has the freedom to talk or pray or do whatever you want. When people here visit my shop, they call me 'uncle' as a sign of respect."

Ahmed Mohamed Sulihabi, another shopkeeper from northern Sudan, says he would have no problem if the south becomes independent. In fact, he might even decide to become a citizen of southern Sudan. "All the people who come into my shop - they treat me like a brother," he says. "In fact, they give us greater respect now because we decided to stay."

He predicts that the northerners who fled Juba will return. "I'm not sure when, but I think they'll come back," he said.

Yassein Salih Mohammed, a northerner who sells electronic products in his shop on the same street, says he has more friends in Juba than in Khartoum. When the referendum began, his friends shouted "happy referendum" to him, and he shouted the same. "They think I am one of them," he says.

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Jehanne Henry, a Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the political leaders of southern Sudan have made laudable efforts to reassure the northerners that they are welcome in the south. There are no signs that southerners are in a mood to take revenge on northerners, and so the northerners have become less nervous, she said.

"Their fears have subsided," Ms. Henry said in an interview. "A lot of those departures from the south are temporary. A lot of them intend to come back."

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