Hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese who fled their homeland during Sudan's civil war are signing up to vote absentee in the January 9 independence referendum. Former war orphans, the so-called 'Lost Boys', are leading the absentee vote campaign at a registration center in the Ethiopian capital.
Nihal Aciek David has only vague memories of his childhood in southern Sudan. It was wartime, 1989. He was seven. Children were separated from their families. He was part of a group that walked eastward, to Ethiopia.
"I have seen a flame of fire, and I [did not] have possibilities of supporting myself or walking," David said. "Most of the people simply escorted me. They carried me. I did not know where to go actually, and finally a huge number of people were simply moving. Until now I did not go back to my family."
Youth share a dream
That was 21 years ago. Today, David is a student with a scholarship from the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. He also heads the Addis Ababa registration center for south Sudan's January 9 referendum on whether to secede from the north.
The referendum was a key element of the 2005 peace agreement that ended a 21-year civil war that killed two million people.
David says youth of his generation share a dream of being reunited with surviving family members scattered across the globe.
"So we [are] fed up war in Sudan," David added. "Why not southern Sudanese having her own independent state? Be sovereign such that we [can] enjoy our own right as our fellow Africans enjoy their own life, and this is the position of all Sudanese youth in Ethiopia as well as those in the diaspora."
Moment of Pride for 'Lost Boys'
Duoth Deng Got is another of the "Lost Boys". He proudly wears a badge that reads, "Head of voter registration, section four", as he tells of his trek to Ethiopia as a seven-year-old.
"When I lose my family this was in 1991, between Ethiopia and Sudan border," Got said. "Go to the refugee camp, I live there as a refugee boy, gathering in one place, 36 boys, we lived there, collect the firewood, get the food from UNHCR, and more difficulty we face together as a group with my friends, some of them lose their lives, so for that I find myself without any family."
Got, now 26 and a graduate of Addis Ababa University, discovered after the 2005 peace agreement that his family had survived the war. He says he prays for the day he can introduce his family back home to the family he started in Ethiopia.
"One of my brothers came to the camp to find me, and he found me there in Dima, a refugee community in Ethiopia," he added. "I am alive in Dima, and he took me there to Sudan this time I have a family. I know they are alive. I see them and I married and I am a father of two daughters and a boy."
Vote in memory of fallen
As Got speaks, three young couples arrive to register. One of the women, 28-year-old Nyabyou Kong says she wants to vote to honor the memory of family members who died in the war.
She says my dad was a soldier and died for the land of south Sudan, and our brothers and relatives have lost their lives for a long time founding that land. So for the lives of those people, to be sensitive, I want to vote for south Sudan.
Kong expressed gratitude to Ethiopia for hosting an estimated 45,000 south Sudanese refugees, many of them for more than 20 years. But she says, "We do not live here because we love to live in exile. We want to go back, whatever the consequences, because our children should be raised in their homeland."
Voter registration ends December 8. Those who register must come back to the center on referendum day, January 9 to cast their ballots.