See a Magnum Photos gallery on South Sudan.
MALAKAL, Sudan—Dancing under a crescent moon, James Aman's children leapt and whooped to celebrate the breakup of Sudan. More than a dozen sons and daughters and nieces and nephews sang and bounced in unison in the cool night, accompanied by the tooting of a cow's horn.
"They are dancing because we are happy for the referendum today and that now we have our own country," Aman said, watching with a smile as the teenagers left his reed-walled compound to begin a noisy circuit of the unlit neighborhood. "They are dancing because the weight of the north is now gone."
South Sudan's leaders have been outplayed by their wily northern counterparts on almost every level in the six years since a peace agreement ended generations of civil war here. In the first years of peace, southerners lost control of important ministries they'd been promised in the postwar government, of the governorships of key states, and, it is widely believed, of hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen oil profits.
Tribal violence, some of it spurred by President Omar al-Bashir's Islamist regime in Khartoum, killed nearly 1,000 people in the south last year and displaced more than 200,000. Corruption has flowered, depriving the people of this deeply impoverished region of basic health and other services.
Yesterday, none of that mattered.
Hundreds of thousands of people across southern Sudan participated in the constitutionally mandated referendum, their gleeful images beamed across the world thanks to a giant international media presence. But the results have never been in doubt. On Jan. 15, after a week of voting, southerners will formally begin the six-month process of breaking away from Africa's largest country. On July 9, their new state will be welcomed by the world community—even the Arab League is considering South Sudan for membership.
To ensure their liberation from Sudan's Arab-led north after 65 years of oppression and two civil wars, the southerners have left little to chance. An attempt to stop the vote in Sudan's constitutional court was stymied when the south's leader, Salva Kiir Mayardit, summoned home from Khartoum two southern members of the bench, thereby depriving the court of a quorum.
Efforts to secure the referendum have taken a nasty turn for some Arab residents of the south, however. More than 4 million people registered to vote, among them a farmer named Adam Ismail, but Ismail won't be placing his fingerprint on a paper ballot this week.
A resident of a disputed region called Fokhar on Sudan's north-south border in Upper Nile state, Ismail and more than 1,000 other Arabs have abandoned their homes and fields and fled to the north after a campaign of intimidation by southern soldiers.
The Arab tribes of Fokhar have long enjoyed good relations with their neighbors from the Dinka tribe, Ismail said, and the locality even includes a few mixed families, but the Arabs have been viewed with hostile suspicion by local commanders of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.
A campaign of intimidation, including arrests and interrogations, night visits by uniformed gunmen, and the shooting death of one member of the community, escalated last November, after local Arabs began registering to vote. Nearly 10 percent of the community has fled north to White Nile state, abandoning their fields and some livestock.
"They were threatening us to not vote for unity," Ismail told me by telephone. "It was our right to register, and we all registered—that's why this is happening." Ismail's family, and nearly 250 other families of the Shukriya tribe, are beginning their seventh week in camps north of the border. Their makeshift shelters are taking on signs of permanence. It is a rare and unfortunate turn of the Sudanese wheel—Arabs dispossessed by African gunmen because of their religion and tribe.