[slideshow]By Sara A. Fajardo, CRS Communications Officer in Juba

People began arriving long before dawn. Some were rumored to have spent the night. By the time we arrived several hundred men and women snaked the grounds of St. Kizito parish in Juba, Sudan. The men stood in one line. The women stood in another. Many carried radios and listened for news of the turnout to Sudan’s historic vote in their home counties. Women whispered, radios hummed, and a few tired children whimpered as they nestled into their mother’s welcoming backs.

All waited patiently. Their time had come. It was time for them to cast their ballot. This was there once-in-a-lifetime chance to vote to decide whether or not southern Sudan will secede from the north or remain united with northern Sudan.

“I thought I’d be the first,” the men chimed happily, “I was here at 5 this morning,” said one, “I got here at 4,” said another.

The women arrived a bit later – they had to tend to their morning chores before setting out to cast their ballots. The feeling was festive, many dressed in their Sunday finest, freshly polished heels, bright red dresses, others were in t-shirts or clutching bags that read Vote for a Peaceful Sudan.

We arrived a full hour before the polls opened. By the time election officials finally signaled for the first voter to enter and cast their ballot, promptly at 8 a.m. at least a 1,000 had gathered.

The ballots are simple, with rampant rates of illiteracy in southern Sudan, two diagrams accompany written choices of their options. Two hands firmly clasped signified a vote for a unified Sudan, a single raised hand is a vote for secession.

People clutched their voting cards firmly until it was their turn to approach the voting booth. Election officials scanned their card, looked up the corresponding number, took their fingerprint, and handed them a ballot. Each one was given careful instructions on how to fold their vote. A thumbprint is needed to mark each voter’s choice. If the ink hasn’t dried sufficiently and the ballot is folded incorrectly the ink might smear ballot and render it unreadable.

Instructions were carefully followed. Voters took their time at the cardboard booth with plastic yellow curtains for privacy. The wind rustled the trees above the open-air polling place. One-by-one they tested their ballots to assure themselves it was fully dried, and then they carefully folded the thick paper and slipped into the sealed plastic electoral box. Before they exited they dipped their index finger into purple indelible ink to prove they’d voted and to prevent people from voting twice. The electoral process will take until January 15th. But for the majority of the Sudanese, today was the day, January 9th, marked a turning point in their history.

“I’m going to slaughter a ram in celebration,” said Raemijuns Amoi Okole, 56, who arrived from Ghana six months ago. Many expressed similar plans. “This is the day we’ve waited for,” was the common refrain, “the day we get to vote for a peaceful Sudan.”