South Sudan Exiles Share Piece of History

They may be far from home, but southern Sudanese living abroad relish opportunity to vote on the future of their homeland.

South Sudan Exiles Share Piece of History

They may be far from home, but southern Sudanese living abroad relish opportunity to vote on the future of their homeland.

Thursday, 13 January, 2011

After casting their ballots, the Sudanese exiles gathered in small groups to chat excitedly. In the nondescript central London hall serving as a polling station, they hugged each other and broke out into spontaneous applause.

“We have been waiting for this for sixty years,” said Lemi Logwana Lomuro, as he prepared to cast his ballot in this week’s referendum on whether South Sudan should secede from the north of the country.

Lomuro, a brigadier-general in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, SPLA, currently studying in the United Kingdom, is one of more than 650 South Sudanese registered to vote here in the British capital - many of them refugees who sought political asylum in the United Kingdom during Sudan’s civil war. Some were just children when they left their homeland.

The referendum, January 9-15, is part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, CPA, which in 2005 ended Africa’s longest running civil war, fought between the mainly Muslim and Arab north and the largely Christian or animist south.

Lomuro, 40, was born in a village some 50 kilometres from Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and joined the SPLA in 1984. Years spent fighting in the bush were interspersed with periods in the United States, where the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Movement, SPLM, the political wing of the SPLA, sent him to finish his education.

Now doing a PhD in international security at Reading University, Lomuro is optimistic about the future, “I think the referendum is a great achievement for our people.” Although, he acknowledges that many challenges lie ahead.

“We have just emerged from a long war,” he said. “A lot of civilians have guns in their hands. This will be a concern for us as a government. Secondly, we lack infrastructure. We have villages and areas that lack basic services for people,” Lomuro continued.

Responding to concerns that the military will dominate an independent South Sudan, he added, “The interim government of South Sudan is not purely made of military men. Yes, we have the military element, but in my opinion that is normal in any country that has undergone war. It is that very military that was able to determine whether there could be peace or not. We also have a big component of our government made of civilian leaders.”

Pointing to national elections held in April 2010, Lomuro went on, “Those elections were pretty democratic. Everyone participated...It is a clear indication that yes, we have started to plant the seeds of democracy and we will continue to do so. I am not worried about the military clinging to power.”

For many, the vote closes a chapter in a history filled with conflict and loss. Grace Musa, 47, recounts vividly how the war came to Juba, her hometown.

“In early 1989, there was shelling of Juba,” she said. “I had never experienced that in my life. I was scared to death.”

It was not easy for her to escape the fighting. “Roads were closed between the north and south,” Musa said. “There were no airplanes. People were dying every day and you were worried that you wouldn’t survive [from one day to the] next.” Eventually, she got to Khartoum in a cargo plane before seeking refuge in the UK.

“When I came here I didn’t know a word of English,” Musa, now studying for a public health degree, said. “I had to learn English from zero. My mother and father died in Khartoum. They are buried there.

“My concern right now is separation. At the moment, I am tired of northerners, I’m tired of being oppressed and I am tired of being a second class citizen.”

Another woman who made the long journey to the UK was Niybol Ayok, a 27-year-old marketing student, who left Sudan for Baghdad with her family when she was just four years old.

“It was okay until the first Gulf War,” she said. “We had to keep going into hiding and it was terrible. We left to go to Egypt in 1994 and lived in Cairo for six years. People were bad and racist towards us. Then we moved to Jordan for four years where [there were restrictions]. Then we went to Ankara for one year which wasn’t bad and we came here in 2004.”

Ayok says the referendum will enable her to finally return home and put down roots. “It’s a great achievement because people suffered for this day to come. This referendum will help bring peace and allow people to go home. I will go back to Juba, that’s where my family is from,” she said.

Jukö Yemba, a 40-year-old paramedic, had flown from his home in Denmark to vote. Casting his ballot, he said, “was great. I jumped up and shouted at the top of my voice. I think this is a good process. It will take the present generation into a good future”.

Yemba added that he will go back to Juba if there truly is a separation between north and south. “I feel obliged because I still have brothers there and I need to help rebuild the country,” he added.

Originally from a village called Yei on the border with Sudan, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, Yemba spent the first 15 years of his life in Juba, before moving to Khartoum, then Jordan and settling in Denmark 14 years ago.

While he has high hopes for his homeland, he is nonetheless concerned about possible renewed conflict with Khartoum.

“The north is only interested in the resources we have in the south. They may try to fight us,” he said. “I don’t trust [Khartoum]. I’ve been hearing that America is keeping an eye on [President] Omar al-Bashir. I don’t trust him either.”

Lomuro, the SPLA general, who is soon to fly back to Juba, shares Yemba’s concerns over the regime in the north, but felt the south could deal with the difficulties that lie ahead.

“We have quite huge challenges but we are prepared to face all of them and I believe we have the capacity to solve them,” he said.

Michael Klimes is an IWPR intern in London.

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists