Rosa Mariamo's son Emmanuel, 1, came down with malaria on the weeks long journey from Khartoum to Juba. The port has been inundated by an influx of returnees, Sudanese living in Northern Sudan who have been returning to the south in response to the referendum.Credits: Sara A. Fajardo/Catholic Relief Services

By Sara A. Fajardo

Click here to view more pictures.

Watching the southern Sudanese line up to cast their ballots has been a lesson in civic-duty. Eric Keri, a tall lanky 50 year-old father of 10, refused to leave Sudan until the last day of the vote. Despite having family in neighbouring Uganda he chose to spend the holiday season alone. He feared some mishap would not get him back to Juba in time to mark with a thumbprint, his choice for Sudan’s future: for either the south to remain united with northern Sudan, or to secede and form the world’s newest nation. It was a resolve shared with members of his entire family– each of them voted, some in such far-flung countries as Australia, the U.S. and Uganda.

One word summed up Eric’s feelings about how he felt about voting, “proud.” On the first day of the elections the streets of Juba had emptied into polling stations. Driving past the normally boisterous market place yielded the sight of mostly locked kiosks and only a handful of people. As each person patiently lined up to wait their turn at the ballot box, the noise of the city was whisked away into hushed conversations and the muffled sound of radios announcing news of the elections. Like hundreds of thousands of others, Eric was determined to cast his ballot on the first day. Even though he arrived at the polls a full two hours before they opened at 8 a.m. and did not take his turn at the voting booth until 3 p.m. he quickly brushed off his nine-hour wait with a shy laugh. “In the bush nine hours is nothing,” he said.

On the closing day of the elections the lines had all but vanished, wind whipped up dust that blew past the signs at almost empty polling stations. Rare were the southern Sudanese who had left their electoral duties for the last minute. “ I thank God,” Eric said, “and some international people that this vote has come to be successful.”

In the months leading up to the vote many said it would never happen. Predictions of violent flare-ups and a return to conflict were commonplace. But the prevailing calm of the electoral process is a true testament to the Sudanese’s commitment to a continuing and lasting peace. The vote is one that is charged with emotion while some rejoice over the prospect of forging a new country, others long to remain a unified Sudan. After more than fifty years of nationhood the lives of northern and southern Sudanese are intertwined. Regardless of the outcome Sudan will never be the same. The historic vote will define what comes next for all Sudanese.

According to the Referendum Law signed in 2009, in order for the vote to be counted as valid at least 60 percent of voters have to participate in the electoral process. By Wednesday both the National Congress Party, the ruling party in northern Sudan, and the Government of Southern Sudan had declared that the 60 percent mark had been reached. As of January 14th, 3 million 135 thousand of registered voters in southern Sudan, a full 83 percent of those who registered had cast their ballots.

After the polls closed, the counting began and went on throughout the night. Battery operated lanterns cast a pale blue light as weary electoral workers bundled counted ballots in preparation for tallying the final vote. For seven days a sepia toned school served as a polling station in the Hai Jalaba neighborhood in Juba, Sudan. More than 4,000 placed their ballots into the translucent sealed boxes and then dipped their fingers in indelible ink to prove they’d voted.

The week has been exhausting for the workers that manned the booths.  They awoke each morning around 5 a.m., in order to officially open centres by 8 a.m., for another 11-hour stretch of work. While their job was to smoothly usher people through the voting process, the turnout in the first few days of the vote required equal parts crowd control and electoral-process know-how. It was up to them to guide voters through the process – their electoral cards were checked at the in-take table, they were given scripted neutral instructions on how to properly mark their ballots to ensure a valid vote.

For a full-week the guarded ballot boxes remained sealed with tight yellow plastic until the polls closed and the head of each station snipped the ties and poured the folded ballots on to a series of pushed together tables. In over 2,600 polling stations in southern Sudan and around the world, election officials began counting the ballots under trees, by lantern light, and in some cases air-conditioned buildings. Before a crowd of national and international observers, they pulled out each vote and placed them in four separate piles: unity, secession, invalid, and unmarked.

The results will become official on February 14, a full month after the polls official close.  In the meantime southern Sudanese who’ve lived in northern Sudan for decades, thanks to an organized repatriation process, continue to arrive in the south on buses and barges by the hundreds and thousands. Each will need assistance in forging their future.  The work continues for agencies like Caritas. The needs are great throughout the country.  Whatever the southern Sudanese decide the ensuing outcome will be a delicate one that will require continued engagement in education, health, livelihood training, micro-finance, agriculture, water and sanitation, and a commitment to peace. Caritas remains dedicated to working with all Sudanese regardless of geography.