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July 9, 2011 saw the birth of the world's newest nation, South Sudan, which carved its place out in a particularly restive part of Africa. As Salva Kiir Mayardit took oath as the first president of the republic, the new nation not only gratefully savoured its first moments of independence but also remembered with sadness the more than two million people who sacrificed their lives for this very moment. Tears rolled down the cheeks of many that day.
The journey to nationhood wasn't easy, independence coming at the end of a conflict that was almost medieval in its brutality. Historically, unified Sudan had been entwined with Turkey and Egypt till the advent of the British in the 19th century. After that, it was jointly governed by Egypt and Britain with the south under the latter. In 1946, the north and south were merged. The southerners were not consulted. They were Christians, a minority, and feared the influence of the culturally Arabic north. Internal tensions heightened when Sudan got independence in 1956 and the north reneged - all the oilfields so vital to Khartoum were in the south - on its commitment of creating a semi-autonomous federal government in South Sudan. The south, thus alienated, rose in rebellion and the first rebel group, Anyanya 1, was born.
Seventeen years of strife followed. In 1972, a tenuous peace was brokered but conflict broke out again in 1983 with the Anyanya 2 now in command. As Khartoum continued to brutally alienate the south, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) was formed.
A conflict within the conflict led to more bloodletting. SPLM finally emerged victorious, but it would take another 22 years of violence before a semblance of internal tribal unity could be achieved and the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement hammered out. South Sudan could now choose to break away or stay after a referendum. This technically ended the civil war but sporadic battles continued. The referendum, held in January this year, saw a 100 per cent turnout and the verdict was for a secession from the north. The 10 states of the south that held the referendum would now form the new nation of South Sudan. Juba, a town on the White Nile, was to be the new capital.
And hence this moment in history.
Juba was given a facelift. Volunteers fanned out in the streets with brooms and brushes and even the bullet-ridden stadium was given a new coat of paint.
As the celebrations ended that day, the South Sudanese probably remembered one other person apart from the millions martyred in their quest for nationhood. That was President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of the erstwhile unified Sudan who, although reluctantly, gave in to the demand for nationhood and brought to an end decades of civil war. Fittingly, he was the guest of honour that day.
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