JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — South Sudan raised the flag of its new nation for the first time Saturday, as thousands of South Sudanese citizens and dozens of international dignitaries swarmed the new country capital of Juba to celebrate the country’s birth.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country Saturday with a raucous street party at midnight. At a packed midday ceremony, the speaker of parliament read a proclamation of independence as the flag of Sudan was lowered and the flag of South Sudan was raised, sparking wild cheers from a crowd tens of thousands strong.
“Hallelujah!” one resident yelled, as other onlookers wiped away tears.
The U.S. and Britain announced their recognition of South Sudan as a sovereign nation. President Barack Obama said the day was a reminder that “after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible.”
“A proud flag flies over Juba and the map of the world has been redrawn,” Obama said in a statement. “These symbols speak to the blood that has been spilled, the tears that have been shed, the ballots that have been cast, and the hopes that have been realized by so many millions of people.”
The noon-hour ceremony hosted by Salva Kiir, who was sworn in as South Sudan’s president, took place under a blazing hot sun. Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, a deeply unpopular man in Juba, arrived to a mixture of boos and surprised murmurs.
“Wow, this is a great day for me because it’s a day that reflects the suffering that all southerners have had for almost 50 years,” said David Aleu, a 24-year-old medical student.
Thousands of South Sudan residents thronged the celebration area, and organizers soon learned they did not have enough seats for all the visiting heads of state and other VIPs. The heat was strong enough that Red Cross workers attended to many people who fainted.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and the American envoy at Saturday’s celebration, urged South Sudan residents and leaders to build a country worthy of the sacrifice of all the lives lost during the five decades of conflict.
“Independence was not a gift you were given. Independence is a prize you have won,” she said. “Yet even on this day of jubilee we remain mindful of the challenges that await us. No true friend would offer false comfort. The path ahead will be steep… but the Republic of South Sudan is being born amid great hopes.”
The black African tribes of South Sudan and the mainly Arab north battled two civil wars over more than five decades, and some 2 million died in the latest war, from 1983-2005. It culminated in a 2005 peace deal that led to Saturday’s independence declaration.
Thousands of South Sudanese poured into the ceremonial arena when gates opened. Traditional dancers drummed in the streets as residents waved tiny flags. Activists from the western Sudan region of Darfur, which has suffered heavy violence the past decades, held up a sign that said “Bashir is wanted dead or alive.” Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointedly noted in his speech that Sudan and South Sudan have not yet resolved all of their political issues. The status of the contentious border region of Abyei — where northern and southern troops are standing off — remains in flux. South Kordofan, which is a part of the north but which has many southern supporters, has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks.
“Let their differences be resolved around the negotiating table,” Ban said.
South Sudan is expected to become the 193rd country recognized by the United Nations next week and the 54th U.N. member state in Africa.
Though Saturday is a day of celebration, residents of South Sudan must soon face many challenges. Their country is oil-rich but is one of the poorest and least-developed on Earth. Unresolved problems between the south and its former foe to the north could mean new conflict along the new international border, advocates and diplomats warn.
Violence has broken out in the contested border region of Abyei in recent weeks, and fighting is ongoing in Southern Kordofan, a state that lies in Sudan — not South Sudan — but which has many residents loyal to the south. The 1,300-mile (2,100-kilometer) north-south border is disputed in five areas, several of which are being illegally occupied by either northern or southern troops.
Obama said that South Sudan and Sudan must recognize that they will be more secure and prosperous if they move beyond past differences peacefully. He said the 2005 peace deal — the Comprehensive Peace Agreement — must be full implemented and the status of Abyei resolved.
The young government faces the huge challenge of reforming its bloated and often predatory army, diversifying its oil-based economy, and deciding how political power will be distributed among the dozens of ethnic and military factions. It must also begin delivering basic needs such as education, health services, water and electricity to its more than 8 million citizens.
While South Sudan is now expected to control of more than 75 percent of what was Sudan’s daily oil production, it has no refineries and southern oil must flow through the north’s pipelines to reach market.
But for Saturday, at least, those problems lay on the back burner. Smiles, singing and dancing instead took precedence.
Adut Monica Joseph waited for the ceremony with her sister and uncle as world leaders arrived. She said she looked forward to a day when women in South Sudan don’t face the hardships they have in recent decades. The risk to the mother of death during child birth is extremely high in the poor and underdeveloped rural south.
“I’m very grateful to see many people from other countries,” said the 22-year-old. “I’m appreciating that they have come to celebrate with us. I hope when we have independence we shall have freedom and education for women.”
Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso in Kenya, Nairobi contributed to this report.