Juba, Sudan: Separation or unity. A solitary hand or two clasped together. That`s the choice — and the ballot image — for close to 4 million registered voters in Southern Sudan beginning Sunday, when a seven-day referendum on separation from Africa`s biggest country begins.
The vote, which is likely to lead to the world`s newest nation, is the culmination of a 2005 peace deal that ended a north-south civil war that lasted two decades and killed 2 million people.
Organizing the vote in the impoverished land, where many are herders and nomadic at least part of the year and where only 15 percent of people can read and write, was an enormous challenge. Only 2 percent of southerners complete primary school.
Almost 4 million voters were registered over the last several months, including 116,000 southerners who live in Sudan`s north and 60,000 in eight other countries, including the US
To be on the safe side, more ballots were printed than the number of registered voters. More than 7.3 million ballots were sent to Southern Sudan for distribution to more than 2,600 polling sites, in places ranging from the slowly up-and-coming southern capital of Juba to remote cattle herder hamlets of a few huts. Anyone who has a parent or ancestor from a southern tribe can vote, as can anyone whose parents or grandparents have been in the south since Jan. 1, 1956.
Southerners will be using a ballot that is much simpler than the long list of names and symbols they were confronted with during national elections in April. This time, the ballot shows two images: one of a lone hand that represents independence and the other image depicting two clasped hands, along with the words "Secession" and "Unity."
The south`s ruling party has worked to educate the population on what each symbol means so there will be no confusion at the ballot box. Top officials have even taken to greeting one another with a high five — to show two separate hands — instead of a handshake.
The European Union will have 104 observers and experts. The Carter Center — founded by former US President Jimmy Carter — is deploying more than 100 observers. Carter himself, along with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and US Sen. John Kerry and actor George Clooney, a Sudan activist, will be present for the referendum. China, which has large investments in Sudan`s oil sector, is also sending observers.
Many voters likely will walk for hours to get to polling stations.
Southern Sudan, a Texas-sized territory of an estimated 8.7 million people, has very little infrastructure outside Juba. It is among the world`s poorest, least healthy and least educated regions. The UN says a typical 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school. Aid groups say southerners streaming home from the north are creating dire shortages of basic services.