Election officials count up ballots at Hai Jalaba Schoo in Juba, Sudan, after polls closed on Saturday, January 15, 2011. Southern Sudanese turned out en masse to cast their ballots to decide the future of their country. Sara Fajardo/Catholic Relief Services

by Renee Lambert, Emergency Coordinator

Young Sudanese polling officials sat inside a small two room school, silently unfolding ballots while national and international observers looked on.  It was just after 7 pm, the polls had closed 2 hours earlier. Outside the school the sun was setting, so the polling officials were counting by the light of small lanterns. Shadows of the young officials unfolding ballots bounced off the walls of the small room and goose bumps covered my arms as I realized the significance of what I was witnessing. My eyes had already welled with tears more times in the past week than could be counted on both hands, but this did not stop them from tearing up again. And I knew that what I was feeling wasn’t even a fraction of what the Sudanese polling officials and observers must be feeling.

The police official in charge of ensuring security at the polling station brought us a small bench so we could watch the counting process; then he proceeded to give us a play-by-play account of the process as we watched it in action. The first box of ballots was dumped in the centre of the table; then 8 polling officials meticulously unfolded each ballot, placing them into tidy bundles. Once all the ballots were unfolded and organised the counting could begin. A young woman brought in water and soda for the polling officials, as they would not be allowed to leave the room until the counting process was complete. The room was oddly silent, with only the occasional murmur from an official or an observer on how the counting process should be organised. The ballots were opened one at a time, the results read by one of the polling officials and the ballot then displayed to the observers to confirm the results. The ballot was then placed in one of four piles: secession, unity, invalid or unmarked.  And this process continued for hours, long after we’d gone home to rest.

In the morning we tried in vain to find another polling station still counting ballots, this time by the light of day, but it seemed that most of the polling centres had counted through the night. One station had already posted the preliminary results from their centre on a tree outside the polling area. Sudanese citizens and journalists crowded around the tree, eagerly taking notes, while police guarded the ballot boxes as they were loaded into a lorry to be driven to a central place for final counting and confirmation. I imagined this same process taking place in all the other polling stations throughout southern Sudan and felt immense pride and amazement at what had been accomplished.

In the months leading up to the scheduled 9 January  referendum, many believed that the voting would be delayed for various reasons, including the logistical constraints of actually getting ballots out to areas that are barely accessible by vehicles. Worried that a delay in the referendum could lead to conflicts and movements of people, Caritas, CRS and the humanitarian community began preparing emergency response plans in anticipation. Thankfully, the referendum process has been peaceful to-date and the contingency plans sit filed away.