There will be many challenges ahead for the Christian-dominated South Sudan as the region concludes seven days of voting for a divided or united country, a World Vision adviser said.
World Vision Policy Adviser Jesse Eaves returned from the southern region of Sudan Wednesday. He reported having caught the "hope bug" after observing the elections and making preparations for the future.
"One I thing I found was that [everyone was] overwhelmingly hopeful; no matter what the result of the referendum everyone was very excited to get the chance to choose their future," he shared.
The historic referendum concludes Saturday. The African country has far surpassed the required 60 percent voter participation to make the results valid. American officials have heralded the referendum as a display of progress.
Though there has been some violence, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, whose organization is monitoring the referendum in Juba, said of the proceedings, "There are almost uniform reports that it's been a calm, peaceful process."
Sudan's past is burdened by two decades of war over land ownership, oil entitlements and control between the Muslim dominated north and the Christian and animist south. Religious as well as ethnic and economic conflict has claimed the lives of over 2 million southerners and wiped out an estimated 500 churches. It has also displaced an additional 4 million people.
The enactment of 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended two decades of civil war between the polarized population and paved the way for this week's vote.
The referendum, which began Sunday, is a vote in which the people of South Sudan will decide whether or not they want to secede and form a new country. For many, separation means a chance for prolonged peace.
The implications of the vote, Eaves explained, are enormous. "It comes down to whether or not a new country will be formed at the end of this process," he said.
Before the region can triumph as a new nation of religious freedom and liberty, Eaves asserted that South Sudan would need to take the necessary nation-building steps. Those steps include building a government and developing a safe, livable country. This will likely be a challenge for the undeveloped, poverty-stricken south.
"The implications are that you would have to not only create a whole new government but to have to build up the infrastructure within South Sudan and you have to take on all of the burdens that come with running a country that is still very poor," he advised.
South Sudan is said to be 239,285 square miles with between 11 to 13 million people. "We're talking about an area that's larger than the size of Texas, but there's only a few dozen miles of paved roads," said Eaves.
As late as 2004 there were communities of displaced people where many lived in plastic sheets. As of 2009, the country struggled with access to clean water. Specifically in South Sudan, only 30 percent of rural dwellers have access to safe drinking water, according to World Vision.
And with little access to water and food, people in the region suffer serious health and hunger concerns.
Constant drought has hindered plant production leading to malnutrition. Poor water quality has led to diarrhea, malaria and other water related infections. Also, nearly 350,000 people are living with HIV and AIDS.
Eaves is also very concerned for the Sudanese children. "Children in Sudan are some of the most vulnerable children in the world," he stated. More than half of the population is under the age of 18 and one out of every seven children die before the age of five.
"The long-standing extreme difficulties of extreme poverty – lack of access to food and extremely dire maternal health problems – will require years of focused efforts both on the part of the government of South Sudan."
There is some hope. South Sudan is also home to 85 percent of the country's oil. In the case of a split, the oil may be a huge help.
The region also receives great support from the Americas, primarily Christians, said Eaves. World vision is actively providing food in conjunction with the World Food Program, health clinics, agricultural help and schools.
Evangelist Franklin Graham and Samaritan's Purse are conducting similar relief works. It is also working to build 419 churches to replace those that were lost, distribute 260,000 Bibles in six languages and train 10,600 believers from local churches to serve as Bible study leaders.
"International support is also going to be absolutely critical to maintaining peace," Eaves stressed.