TA: Sudanese refugees celebrate independence vote

African migrants from S. Tel Aviv show support as independence referendum begins in S. Sudan that could create world's newest nation.

Sudan Referendum 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Sudan Referendum 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Over 300 Sudanese refugees on Sunday took part in a rally in South Tel Aviv supporting a week-long independence referendum taking place in South Sudan that is likely to create the world's newest nation.
There are said to be some 5,000 to 6,000 refugees from Sudan in Israel, according to Sharon Harel, assistant protection officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tel Aviv.
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The rally took place as voters in Southern Sudan began casting ballots Sunday in a weeklong independence referendum likely to create the world's newest nation about five years after the end of a brutal civil war.
The oil-rich, mainly Christian south is widely expected to secede from the mainly Muslim north, splitting Africa's largest country in two. The north has promised to let the south go peacefully.
"This is the historic moment the people of Southern Sudan have been waiting for," said Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir as he cast his vote in front of a cheering crowd of hundreds lined up in front of the polling station. Sudan activist George Clooney and US Sen. John Kerry were on hand to watch Kiir vote.
Kiir, wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, appeared visibly emotional as he remembered the 2 million people killed in 1983-2005 civil war. He also honored rebel leader John Garang, who died in a plane crash shortly after the peace deal was signed.
"I am sure that they didn't die in vain," he told the crowd. Women broke out in singing and chants and one man waved a sign saying: "A road toward sovereignty. A new nation to be born on the African continent!!!"
Many voters lined up in the middle of the night, and some slept at the site of Garang's grave, where Kiir voted. Among the voters was Mawien Mabut, a 36-year-old soldier who was grinning widely as he lined up to cast his ballot.
"I have seen the inside of war so we have to stop the war now. We are very happy the Arabs are going away," he said.
Standing near him was Rachel Akech, 30. The tall, pregnant woman has traditional scars on her face and her lower teeth removed, a tradition in the Dinka tribe.
"I couldn't even sleep I've been thinking about this day for so long," she said. "I am ready to vote."
This week's referendum is part of a 2005 peace deal that ended the two-decade civil war between the north and south. Voters can mark one of two choices — a single hand for independence or two clasped hands for unity. The illustrations are necessary because only 15 percent of the region's 8.7 million people can read.
Southerners, who mainly define themselves as African, have long resented their underdevelopment, accusing the northern Arab-dominated government of taking their oil revenues without investing in the south. Southern Sudan is among the world's poorest regions, and the U.N. says a 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than finishing school.