As the long-awaited Sudanese referendum begins, southern Sudanese from around the world are casting their ballots to determine the future of their country. VOA visited a polling center in Nairobi, Kenya to observe the historic vote.
The scene at Nairobi’s Railways Sports Club could have easily been mistaken for a large family gathering, or a neighborhood barbecue. As music played from oversized speakers, vendors sold ice cream, took pictures and poured drinks for the smiling crowd.
Those present milled about, greeting friends and otherwise enjoying the sunny afternoon. But for many, this party in downtown Nairobi will prove a defining moment for the rest of their lives.
At the heart of the celebrations is a polling center where Nairobi’s Sudanese community is casting its vote in the South Sudan referendum on secession.
The referendum, which began Sunday, will decide whether the oil-rich south separates from the North to form Africa’s newest nation. The vote is the final provision outlined in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended more than 20 years of war in 2005.
That brutal war, which claimed an estimated 2 million lives, is the reason many Southern Sudanese find themselves in Nairobi for the historic vote. And many are like Peter Riek, who has seen his country only once in his life, for only a few days.
"I went up to Ethiopia with my mom and dad. My dad was an SPLM soldier; then he died because of that war," he said. "Now, I stay here in exile alone with my relatives. Our only option is secession."
By some estimates, there are nearly one-million Sudanese living in Kenya, many with similar stories of pain and loss. But for the 15,000 registered voters taking to the polls during the next week, there is hope for the future in an independent South Sudan.
Nearly every voter who spoke to VOA on Sunday discussed their dreams of returning home, even after decades spent abroad.
Nairobi Business student Peter Mayom plans to take a break from his to experience a newly independent South Sudan firsthand.
"Even if I am still studying here, I have to go and celebrate," he said. "When they announce the results, I will go home and celebrate with my people. Then I come back for my studies, when I am happy."
The sunny weather only added to the cheerful atmosphere at the Railways Club, but the threat of violence still looms like a storm cloud over polling centers in Kenya and across Southern Sudan.
Many observers are nervously watching to see if any isolated spark reignites conflict in Africa’s largest country.
In the months leading up to the vote, groups such as the Sudan Small Arms Survey and the Brussels-based International Crisis group have warned of dangerous military buildups along the north-south border.
Tensions have also been heightened by still unresolved issues such oil-sharing arrangements and the status of the oil-rich Abyei region. Straddling the border, Abyei was to hold a separate referendum to choose sides in the event of a split but logistical challenges and political deadlock have delayed the vote.
But for Nairobi voter Teresa Nanga, who plans to return to her home in Rumbek, peace is the only option.
"You know - according to the bible - your enemy is still your brother," she said. "So if we are north and south, we cannot fight. We are still all Sudanese."
The Government of South Sudan has openly campaigned for a split from the north and analysts expect the vote to overwhelmingly favor secession. There have been reports of isolated clashes along the north-south border on the eve of the referendum, but the situation remains calm and the vision of an independent south Sudan within reach.