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The long road to independence

South Sudan, July 9, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A young man looks out over South Sudan's independence celebration. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

The road to independence for South Sudan has been long and difficult. The road to the official Independence Day celebration was also pretty tough.

I was eager to attend the independence ceremony. To get a seat I needed to have an invitation from Government of South Sudan — hurdle number one. Through persistent work, we secured several such invites.

Shortly after arriving in Juba, I discovered that invites alone were not sufficient. I also had to get a VIP pass, which required the presentation of a very unofficial-looking scrap of paper with my name and a government ministry stamp — hurdle number two. With scrap of paper in hand, I waited on line for several hours to have my photo taken — hurdle three. Then I received a very official looking VIP guest pass. Mission accomplished.

The rules of admission were ever changing and rather opaquely communicated. It’s also difficult to convey the level of chaos, waiting and confusion that accompanied each step of the process. Up until we left this morning, we had no idea if another hurdle might unexpectedly be thrown up. We had also heard that 5,000 guests were expected for a venue with seats for just 1,400.

Getting to the ceremony was another matter. We started out driving but the roads were so clogged that we eventually got out and walked, following the throngs of South Sudanese making their way to the field and bleachers of the Dr. John Garang — a deceased national hero and former first Vice President of Sudan — Mausoleum.

We waited for four hours for the ceremony to begin, and it was a pretty incredible wait. We guesstimated approximately 100,000 people were there, all of them ecstatic, many wrapped in the new flag of South Sudan. International VIPs who might never otherwise never come together — U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir — arrived in the hours before the ceremony, making for an amazing spectacle of global leadership.

It was hot, really hot — probably 90 degrees or more. The Mercy Corps team managed to catch some shade, but most people weren’t so lucky. There were plenty of casualties: guests, soldiers and other ceremony participants started dropping like flies from heat exhaustion after a couple of hours. Members of the newly minted South Sudan Red Cross were kept very busy taking care of overheated patients.

After all of this, you might be thinking: Was it worth it?

My response: You have no idea.

It’s not often that one is lucky enough to witness the birth of a nation, especially after a long and difficult struggle like the South Sudanese people have experienced. Seeing the South Sudan flag raised — and witnessing people’s reactions to it — was one of the most moving experience I’ve ever seen. When the declaration of independence was read, the crowd went absolutely wild.

South Sudan faces a range of challenges — poverty, lack of infrastructure, healthcare and education — as well as lots of unfinished business — borders, division of oil revenues, introduction of a new currency. But for one day, those concerns were put aside and the South Sudanese were able to bask in the [hot] sun of their own progress.