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As a teenager, Jasten Louciano searched for his father for four years, tracking him through the labyrinth of Sudan's military prisons, where thousands disappeared and few returned.

He never found his father. But now, nearly two decades later, he has stumbled into something else: the birth of his nation.

Three days ago, Mr. Louciano stepped off a barge on the White Nile and returned to southern Sudan for the first time since he was 16 years old. He is among the estimated 100,000 migrants from northern Sudan who have returned to their southern homeland in the past three months.

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They are returning to witness history: A long-awaited referendum on whether southern Sudan should become an independent nation, splitting apart Africa's biggest country. Many have arrived too late to register for the referendum that begins on Sunday, but they are excited to be here.

"I feel that I'm home now," Mr. Louciano said. "I've reached my destination."

The referendum is nearly certain to produce a landslide victory for the pro-secession forces, triggering a six-month negotiating process that could culminate in a declaration of independence in July.

This week, the secessionists were given a huge boost when Sudan President Omar al-Bashir flew to Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, and pledged to respect the referendum, regardless of the results. He promised to help build a stable and "brotherly" nation in the south if it votes for independence. His unexpectedly positive comments were a strong indication that Khartoum might allow secession without trying to sabotage it.

If the world's newest country is created here this year, it will mark the end of a tortuous journey for Mr. Louciano and thousands like him.

In 1992, during a notorious massacre by Sudan's national army, hundreds of people disappeared or perished in Juba. Many vanished into the "White House" - the local name for the military intelligence prison in Juba where suspects were taken to be beaten or killed.

One of those who vanished was Mr. Louciano's father, who was serving in the national army. The southern rebels had launched an audacious attack on Juba, and the northern authorities took revenge by imprisoning many southern civilians and soldiers, who were suspected of aiding the rebels.

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For five months, the teenager searched for his father. When someone said his father had been transferred to a prison in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea, he trekked northward. Still unable to find his father, he decided to join the national army, which he thought would improve his chances of tracing his father.

He searched for another four years before he finally gave up. "When you go into the White House, you're dead," he said.

As a soldier in the national army, he was forced to fight against his southern brothers in the civil war. "If I didn't fight them, I would be killed," he said.

He eventually quit the army, but he spent 17 years in the north, mostly working in Khartoum as a construction labourer for $10 a day. He saw how southerners were harassed by the police, who raided their houses at night to search for alcohol, imposing 40 lashes as punishment under Khartoum's harsh Islamic laws.

"It made me afraid," he said. "I had a miserable life in Khartoum - I couldn't take it any more. There was no freedom. I am happy that we are going to separate."

When the south becomes a nation, he will hold a funeral rite for all the family members who died in the decades of civil war. He will pray that they find eternal peace. "The ballot," he says, "is our final bullet."

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