Work crews have started paving Southern Sudan's first highway, which will connect the new nation to the international community. This highway brings the south one step closer to full independence.
A military band welcomed Southern Sudan's president, Salva Kiir, the American consul general in the south, Barrie Walkley, and local officials to a remote stretch of road near the Sudan-Uganda border.
This is the southern end of a 192 kilometer, heavily mined, potholed dirt road that a United States-funded project started work on five years ago. On Thursday, the first stretch of pavement was laid down on what will soon be the south's first paved highway, linking the southern capital, Juba, to the world outside the new nation's borders.
Kiir was the guest of honor during the ceremony.
"It is development that we need and development starts with these roads," said Kiir.
By the time the pavement reaches Juba, the United States will have spent $225 million on this road. U.S. Consul General Barrie Walkley said this is the United State's flagship project in the south.
"Five years ago it would have taken you eight hours to drive this road," said Walkley. "One year from now it will take you two-and-a-half hours to drive from Juba to the Uganda border."
Southern Sudanese voted nearly unanimously last month to separate from the northern part of the country. The vote was widely hailed as transparent, free and fair. Now that countries have begun to recognize the south as an independent nation, the south is starting to focus on transforming into a viable state.
President Kiir, a regular churchgoer who rarely speaks publicly outside of Sunday mass, acknowledged the huge hurdles faced by the south.
"God created the world in six days. It will not be easy for us to build Southern Sudan in two years. But we will have to make a change, so that after two years there is a difference between now and then," added Kiir.
He described the building of roads as the first step to development. Other road projects include improvements on routes into Kenya and Ethiopia.
Also in attendance on Thursday was Joseph Lagu, the leader of the south's first rebellion, which ended in 1972. Lagu stressed the importance of links to Sudan's southern and eastern neighbors over links with the north of the country.
"We now belong to East Africa, not North Africa," said Lagu.
The road should be finished by February, 2012 and will connect with the road to Uganda's capital, Kampala. Beyond that, there are paved roads all the way to the Kenyan port in Mombassa, the south's closest link for exports, and to Tanzania and beyond.
Much of the south remains inaccessible because of poor roads, especially during the rainy season. The security problems faced in areas closed off to authorities and aid during the harsh dry season was highlighted earlier in the week when 105 soldiers and civilians were killed in a remote area of southern Sudan's Jonglei state.