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Published October 04 2010

Sudanese to march for freedom

In the grip of election fever, some Fargo residents are holding a rally, making pitches to church groups and planning a drive to Nebraska to cast a vote.

But it’s not the November midterm U.S. elections they’re gearing up for. Instead, it’s a referendum taking place more than 7,000 miles away – a high-stakes vote they’re anticipating anxiously.

Local southern Sudanese imports like Daniel Nhial have lived in America for almost a decade. But since resettling here in 2001 with the big wave of so-called Lost Boys, they’ve kept watch on developments in their land, ravaged by one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars in history. And no development has been more decisive than the January referendum over southern Sudan’s secession from the north.

“This is the time we can exercise our power as citizens and decide what’s best for us,” says Nhial, head of the local New Sudanese Community Association. He estimates more than 4,000 compatriots live in Fargo-Moorhead.

On Saturday, the Sudanese will march to Fargo City Hall to raise awareness about the vote.

More than 20 years of vicious fighting in southern Sudan killed 2 million people and sent thousands of boys on a perilous trek to safety in a Kenya refugee camp. Nhial and fellow rally organizers were in their late teens when they arrived in America.

Several years later, the north and south reached a peace agreement, which included the January referendum. Tensions and mistrust persist, and the South is widely expected to vote for secession.

“Everybody knows how it’s going to go,” says North Dakota State University professor Tom Ambrosio, an ethnic conflicts expert. “I can’t imagine the people of south Sudan are going to say, ‘Yes, we’d like to remain a part of Sudan.’ ”

Nhial’s friend Mathor Wan agrees. But that ­doesn’t make him any less nervous about the vote. Sudan seems to be dragging its feet, with major delays in kicking off voter registration. And because most of Sudan’s oil reserves are in the south, he fears the central government won’t allow the split without a fight.

So the group decided to hold a rally in support of the vote – one of many such events planned across the country, including one on the same day in Omaha.

“In a sense, we’re creating awareness that this is our right, and nobody can take it away from us,” says Mathor.

Sudanese expats in eight countries, including the United States, will get to weigh in on secession, though it’s not clear yet where the polling sites will be. Local Sudanese assume one will be in or near Omaha, where many compatriots live.

The rally organizers drove out to Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this month to catch a speech by the president of southern Sudan on the referendum. They are determined to trek to wherever the Midwest polling center will be. They worry the Sudanese government might try to tamper with the vote back home, making overseas polling extra important.

“Those fears are there, and we don’t want somebody to rig our future,” says Mathor. “To us, this is our last chance.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529