After an 18-day journey from Khartoum - in dry season, when the waters of the Nile are shallower than usual, making the 1,600-kilometre stretch of river more difficult to navigate - a pair of barges finally begins to close in on the Southern Sudanese city of Juba. As the first ship appears, women on the shore and aboard the boat begin to dance, sing and ululate.
Cipiriano Wani is as excited as he is uneasy. One of his two wives and eight of his 15 children are arriving on the barges. Cipiriano left Juba, the south's biggest city, for Khartoum in 1978. Six months ago he returned, but he worries about how he will support his family when they arrive. "The economic situation is better in the north than here. It is easier to find a job in Khartoum," he says. "[But] there, the security is worse. There is racism. They say that if the south wants to separate, you cannot remain. This is why I brought my family to Juba."
Gradually, the human cargo - there are 220 families aboard the two ships, according to a local official - spills ashore. A couple helps an elderly woman cross a narrow plank placed between the ship and the riverbank. A little girl dressed in a man's suit twice her size carries a canteen full of water and a bundle of dry twigs. Behind her, all manner of things - suitcases, mattresses, sacks of sorghum, bed stands, wardrobes, refrigerators, and farm animals - wait to be unloaded.
Over the past three months, according to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, more than 180,000 people have arrived from the north. Most of them are former refugees who escaped the civil war a generation ago to settle in shanty towns around Khartoum. Their numbers may reach half a million by the time the south formally declares independence in July. "There is nothing here to support returnees, to integrate them into society," says Jehanne Henry, from Human Rights Watch. "There's little in the way of health and basic services here to begin with, and now the situation is even worse."
Part of the reason for this developing humanitarian crisis is the failure of the autonomous government of Southern Sudan and the central government in Khartoum to agree on future citizenship arrangements for southerners living in the north and for northerners in the south.
In addition, threatening rhetoric pouring out of the capital has served to magnify fear and uncertainty. Last September a member of cabinet declared that southerners would cease to enjoy citizenship rights, jobs or benefits in the north if the country were to split. Omar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir, Sudan's president, later warned that "if [the south] secedes, we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity."
Sitting by a pile of his belongings at the dock in Juba, Samuel Tigot Amen, a 38-year-old mechanic, has no doubt about who is to blame for the mass migration of recent months. "The politicians in the north are the ones making trouble," he says. "That's why you have southerners returning from the north, but no northerners fleeing the south."
On the first day of the referendum members of the International Church of Kush, a local Christian group named after an ancient kingdom that covered areas of modern day Sudan and southern Egypt, are out in force. They parade through Juba dressed in black, carrying large wooden crosses and proclaiming a day of deliverance.
"This is the day the prophesy of Isaiah has come true. In the Bible it is written that the people of the land of Kush will one day rise," yells Garang Ater, a member of the group. "We want to worship our Lord in freedom. We want to tell the world that we do not want to live again in slavery. Our people fought and died during 21 years [of war] so that we could see this day."
Religion is an important issue in the south, yet it does not appear to be a divisive factor at the ballot box or in everyday life. Indeed, few pay any attention when a young Muslim man unrolls his prayer mat in front of a busy convenience store and begins his evening prayer. "This land is for all, including Muslims," shouts Garang, the parading Christian, when asked whether he sees a place for Muslims in an independent south.
Outside a mosque, a group of southern Muslims seem unperturbed at the prospect of trading in the current Muslim-majority state for one where they will live as a minority. (While 70 per cent of all Sudanese are Muslims, the majority of southerners practise Christianity or one of a wide range of local religions.) "We have had no problems with the Christians here," says Yasir, one of the group. "We are all African. There is no difference between us."
The south is far from conflict-free. In 2009 communal violence displaced 391,000 people and killed more than 2,500. Despite a marked decrease in deaths (986 people in 2010), "the dynamics that underlie the violence in Southern Sudan are still in place," says Claire McEvoy, an expert from the international research group Small Arms Survey.
Despite all the sources of tension, religion is not much of a flashpoint. Mireille Girard, the UNHCR's deputy representative in Southern Sudan, says that violence in the region comes in the shape of tribal disputes over cattle, political violence and attacks by armed groups, but not religious strife. "We have not recorded religious violence among the categories of violence in the recent past," Girard says. "We don't see signs of it and we don't anticipate seeing this as a subject of concern."
Neither does Tahir Bior, chairman of the Islamic Council of Southern Sudan. "We will be a country with many religions under one roof," he says. "As Muslims we have no problems here, and we have voted for separation."
The only scenario in which the Muslim minority will be threatened is if there is renewed fighting between north and south, says Øystein Rolandsen of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. "Then, at least those Muslims of northern origin may become targets for local retaliation. But the biggest reason why they'll be targeted is because they come from the north, [rather than] because they are Muslims."
On July 30, 2005, just six months after he signed a historical peace deal with Khartoum - ending a 20-year civil war that killed an estimated two million people and paving the way for this year's referendum - John Garang, the leader of the southern struggle against the north, died in a helicopter crash. As the news broke, a mob of southerners, suspecting the Khartoum government of having had a hand in the accident, torched the Arab section of the Juba market, killing 18 merchants. (A subsequent investigation into the crash found no evidence of foul play, blaming pilot error and bad weather.)
Such a scenario, despite several warnings from Khartoum, has failed to repeat itself during the referendum period. In Juba, the only sign of hostility I witnessed came when a woman, returning from one of the polling stations, yelled, "Bye bye jellaba" - a reference both to the garment worn by Arabs and to the Arabs themselves - while waving towards a pair of light-skinned shopkeepers. They turned out to be Eritrean.
Overall, says Jonathan Temin from the US Institute of Peace, "the southern government has been very reassuring towards the Arab minority." In a brief speech on the first day of the vote, Salva Kiir, John Garang's successor as president of Southern Sudan, instructed southern security forces to protect northerners and their property.
Ali el Obeyd Elawad, a northern trader, felt sufficiently reassured, he says, and stayed in the south. Others did not. Sitting outside his store in Juba, Elawad points to a row of closed shops across the street. "A lot of Arabs have left," he says. Some have sold up and gone for good but most, he predicts, will be back. A worker at a local cargo company seems to confirm this, reporting no increase in business from his Arab customers. If they are leaving, he says, they are taking only light luggage, a sign that they may simply be planning to sit out the referendum period in the north before returning later on.
"Some of the southern tribes, but not all of them, do not like the northerners," says Elawad. "But generally we do not have any problems from people or the [Southern] government." Like most of those who have stayed behind he does not feel threatened, and neither is he planning to leave town. If he were able to vote, he says, he would vote for separation. (Only southerners were allowed to vote in the referendum.) "I would be very grateful to be a citizen of Southern Sudan," he declares.
Meanwhile, inside the local Konyo Konyo market, Adil Jafar Casmasit, an Arab butcher from Kosti, dismisses the idea that things might change for the worse for his family after the referendum. "No one has made us feel different," he says. "No one has caused us any problems. On Christian holidays, we have even celebrated together with the Christians."
"The [traders] who left did not leave because of their own opinions, but because people in the north told them, 'Come, come,' and they listened, Me, I understand the situation here and there is no need for me to leave."
There is, he says, no alternative to separation: "A lot of blood has been shed, and it needs to stop."
There are few reliable indications of the number of Arabs living in the south. According to government figures, Southern Sudan is home to anywhere between from 80,000 and 100,000 northerners, a category that encompasses Arabs and non-Arabs, including Darfurians. (There are no official figures for the total number of Muslims, either. The Islamic Council of Southern Sudan has cited a figure of two million, although most experts believe this to be a high estimate.)
Many Arabs left the south after the 2005 peace agreement with the north and the partial handover of power to the autonomous Government of Southern Sudan that followed. Others yet fled the south during the disturbances that followed John Garang's death. "Most [were] either traders or soldiers or administrators of one kind or another," says Rolandsen. Inevitably, they were often perceived as an extension of Khartoum's power in the region. Many of them, at least according to southerners, were government spies.
What makes calculating the number of Arabs in the south so difficult is the range of definitions used to describe an Arab in Sudan. As Francis Deng, the UN's Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, wrote in War of Visions, his book on race and identity in Sudan: "Virtually all ethnic groups in the country have their primary roots in the black African tribes." With the gradual Arab settlement of the Sudan, the Egyptian conquest in 1820, and the enslavement of a large part of the region's African population, the Arabs came to be perceived as "free, superior, and a race of slave masters", according to Deng. The claim to Arab ancestry became both a survival tactic and a path to improved social standing.
"Given a situation where non-Arabs were allowed to alter their lot dramatically by converting to Islam, learning to speak the Arabic language, intermarrying with the Arabs, and identifying genealogically with the master race, the move to assimilation was irresistible," writes Deng. "In due course so liberal was the process that the claim to Arab ancestry could be made from fictional assertions that usually did not need to be verified." As a result, the northern Sudanese have come to see themselves as Arabs, "and deny the strongly African element in their skin color and physical features."
In today's black-dominated south, Deng might be surprised to find that a partial reconsideration - not to say a renunciation - of Sudanese Arab identity is taking place. "I can say I'm a northern Sudanese, but I cannot say I am an Arab," says Elawad, the trader from Khartoum. "I am a mixed-blood." By the main mosque in Juba, a black Southern Sudanese man reports that a neighbouring shop is run by an Arab. The man working the counter there acknowledges Arab descent, but is quick to add: "I am an African."
According to Rolandsen of the Peace Research Institute, the fact that people like Elawad support separation, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of indigenous Muslims in the south voted in favour of it, disproves the notion that the conflict between north and south has been one between Christianity and Islam.
"Ostensibly this has been a conflict over religion, because religion has been used in official propaganda by both warring parties," says Rolandsen. "But the [truth] is that this is a conflict between the rich centre in Khartoum and one of several impoverished peripheries in Sudan."
The legacy of institutionalised slavery, decades of neglect and a half-century of violent conflict have left the south in miserable shape. Even in Juba, many of its problems are on display. At the local university, students sleep eight to a room, running water is scarce and classrooms lack basic equipment. The city has grown from roughly 150,000 residents to more than a million in the last five years, but rudimentary huts outnumber any other kind of dwelling.
The south's socioeconomic indicators complete the rest of the picture. The literacy rate is as low as 15 per cent. At least half the population lacks access to safe drinking water. According to UNICEF, 10 per cent of children die before their first birthday. More than 90 per cent of the population lives on less than one dollar per day. The entire region, which contains eight million people and is roughly the size of France, has only 50km of paved roads.
War with the north, especially over the oil-rich border territories, remains a constant possibility. Add rampant corruption and growing signs of discontent with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) government, and the range of potential disasters facing the region is limitless.
And yet there are reasons for optimism. The south's ability to accommodate religious diversity is one. Another is the tremendous amount of energy, the sense of unity and common purpose that the referendum period and the prospect of independence have unleashed among the people of the south. This has been borne out in the numbers: turn-out has been 99 per cent; the result has been a 99 per cent vote in favour of independence.
Jok Madut Jok, a Sudanese-born professor of African studies at Loyola Marymount University in California, returned to Juba three months ago to join the Southern Sudanese Ministry of Culture. He is overseeing the creation of a museum of national heritage, and knows that forging a nation from hundreds of tribes and ethnic groups will be no easy matter.
"One of the things that have torn apart Sudan is a sense of exclusion from the state," he says. "It is important for Southern Sudan to break apart from that tradition; that is the task that the government has to take on - to make sure that every southerner feels included."
For a long time, he explains, what unified southerners above all was their opposition to the north. "This has left the people of the periphery with only one choice, and that is to express their views through war."
For now, though, Jok sees the possibility of reconciliation. "Ours is not an exercise in hate against the north," he says. "In the future, if we desire it we can reforge a kind of unified market, a kind of regional trading network that will possibly lead us back to unity. But it will be a unity of equals."
For Mohammed, a teacher from the north and a bitter critic of the Khartoum regime, the birth of a southern state has related and more radical implications. On the eve of the vote in Juba, the weather bearably cool, his friends discussing the referendum over sugary tea and cigarettes, Mohammed takes in the atmosphere before delivering his verdict. "This," he says, "will be the first step to liberation of all of Sudan."
Piotr Zalewski is a freelance journalist living in Istanbul.