In a bare primary school classroom on the site of an old military base, on the day before the great day in southern Sudan, John Okot, queue controller, was erecting a cardboard voting booth and talking about his life choices. They had been limited, he told me. By the time he was nine and the colonial administrators from Britain had decided to leave Sudan to its own fate, the war with the Arabs in the north was already a year old. Soon Okot was judged old enough to carry a gun, and was sent to join the Anya-Nya ("snake venom") southern guerrilla movement in the bush.
There were few guns to carry. "People went to Congo to bring back weapons to help us," said Okot, a tall, upright man of 63 with narrow, smiling eyes and large gaps between his teeth. "But they weren't enough. Many of us died."
That was the first war, the one southerners call Anya-Nya I. When it ended, in 1972, Okot, like many former rebels, was absorbed into the national security forces - in his case, the police. Peace lasted just 11 years: a group of renegade army officers from the south again took control of the bush for Anya-Nya II. Okot was tempted to join the rebels, led by John Garang. His bosses, who reported to Khartoum, in the north, knew that. So they sent him to the capital. Okot spent the war - all 21 years of it - away from his family, on the wrong side of the battle.
“I was scared, it was difficult, what could I do?" he said. "I acted in good faith."
He retired from the police in 2003, but here he was, working on a Saturday afternoon in the referendum centre at Ariathdit Primary School in Aweil, capital of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal State. Everything had to be right for the next day, he said. The people of the south, Okot included, were finally to be given the choice they had dreamed of for decades - separation from the north, or unity.
Almost exactly six years earlier, John Garang had officially ended the north-south war that had caused about two million deaths and forced four million southerners to flee their homes. At a run-down football stadium in Nairobi, Kenya, I had watched him shake hands with his foe Omar el-Bashir, president of Sudan, sealing a peace agreement whose main provision was a referendum of secession for southern Sudanese, scheduled for 9 January 2011 - a date which, back then, seemed far in the future.
A few weeks later I flew in an old cargo plane chartered by Garang's rebel SPLM to the town of Rumbek, in southern Sudan, to witness his homecoming there. After stepping over a few newly slaughtered bulls, a traditional Dinka welcome, he addressed a crowd of thousands. "The first republic of Sudan which existed from 1956 to 2004, the old Sudan, is finished," Garang said.
The new Sudan, in his vision, was a united country in which southerners would, for the first time, be treated as equals. But just six months later, and only weeks after he was sworn in as the country's first vice-president, a Ugandan helicopter taking him back to Sudan crashed in bad weather. The chairman, as Garang's followers knew him, was dead.
In the afternoon I stumbled across a man named Duat Lual who was sitting under a tree in the governor's compound where he worked. Dressed smartly in a red gingham shirt, grey herringbone trousers and the black pointy leather shoes popular among South Sudanese men, he was about to get on his motorbike to go to his village, where he would vote in 16 hours.
There were two reasons why secession was inevitable, he said. "First, we are southerners, Africans, black skins, Christians. In the north, they are Arabs, red skins, Muslims. So we are not the same." Second, there was the bitterness against the north for the 37 years of war since the end of colonial rule; a war that, it can be said without exaggeration, tore apart almost every family in the south. In Lual's case, his father sent him to Khartoum when he was 12 to escape the conflict. He travelled alone by train and bus, arriving in Sudan's capital with only the clothes on his back.
After school every day, he worked on vegetable patches or cleaned offices or homes. He did not see his parents again for more than 20 years, until after the war ended. By then, he was at university part-time, studying law, but still could not find any work other than menial labour. So he came back to Aweil, where he found a job that gave him dignity. "This vote is our chance," he said, getting up and walking towards his motorbike. "A very nice chance that we don't want to lose."
Shortly after midnight, the first voters arrived at Ariathdit Primary School, among them a woman holding a baby who had walked for four hours to get there. By 7.30am the queues were already long. Okot had done his job well, even setting out plastic chairs for the first 20 or so male and female voters, who sat facing each other in separate, neat lines.
At exactly 8am, he ushered in the first voter, Garang Aken Achek, a 51-year-old local chief who wore a dusty, oversized black suit. Achek carefully placed a thumbprint next to the open-hand symbol on the ballot paper denoting separation, folded it and dropped it into the box. After dipping a finger in purple ink, he turned and waved to the voters still awaiting their turn. Okot smiled back broadly for a few seconds. He motioned the next voter in.
Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the NS