On the eve of the Independence Day Celebration, in Juba, South Sudan, excitement was in the air. I spent the morning getting my press pass from the Ministry of Information. The place was buzzing with media from around the globe. Every outlet was represented. Most of them were seasoned journalists who seemed accustomed to the harsh heat, which was inescapable. I met one man who had just been on assignment in Yemen and a LA Times reporter stood behind me in line. I took my camera apart one more time and, luckily, got it working again. But I was so nervous that it was going to freeze up again, that I didn’t want to use it at all before the big day.
Our logistical director, George, somehow found two men with a rickshaw and hired them to drive me around town for the day. Adem, the driver and, Muhammad, my English-speaking guide, were both South Sudanese Muslims. Muhammad spoke perfect English, which he said he learned from listening to Michael Jackson records as a kid. He had grown up in Khartoum and was obsessed with Western culture, particularly music, movies, and technology. It was interesting talking to him about being a Muslim who was raised in the North and now living in the, predominantly non-Muslim, South. He was very dedicated to his religion and even dropped me off at 4PM so he could go for prayers.
The rickshaw was a perfect ride, as we were able to easily dodge all of the traffic jams and check points. Finally, after hours of zipping around town, taking passport photos, waiting in lines and general finagling, I got it – an all-access press pass to the historic South Sudan Independence Day Celebration.
As the day started winding down, the streets began to clear out. Security was tight. There were heads of state and dignitaries coming from 36 countries. There was no way these guys were going to risk anything going wrong. That’s one thing for sure about a country that’s been at war, they know security. Luckily, our logistical team is very connected and we were still able to go out for dinner.
As we drove through the eerily empty streets of Juba, we passed the huge illuminated ticker that was counting down the minutes to Independence, with words like, “Free At Last” blinking. When the clock struck midnight the people became ecstatic, flocking into the streets cheering, singing and chanting. Their day had come. Even in the blackness of the night, the celebrations had begun.
Saturday morning I was up at the crack of dawn. I was on my own, as my team had to leave the hotel early. They just told me to, “follow the crowd” to the stadium. I gathered my things into my backpack (water, power bars, sunscreen, ID, some money, and cameras) and set out. The guy’s instructions were perfect. There was a steady flow of people all going in one direction. I got into the mix and, although I was the only westerner in sight, I felt completely safe. I’ve never seen such security. There were military or police on the veranda of every shop I passed. There was nothing but good energy in the air.
I walked with a sea of people to the stadium. The event was held at the mausoleum of, the late, Dr. John Garang. Garang was the charismatic leader of the southern army during the 22-year civil war. He was killed in a helicopter crash three weeks after the peace agreement was signed, in 2005. His status in South Sudan is both legendary and almost mythical. The mausoleum was the perfect place for this celebration.
There were riot police everywhere but people were just happy, not out of control. The whole thing was completely surreal for the first hour. I was so thankful for the press pass that allowed me to walk through the crowd and directly up to the towering platform overlooking the event. The security personnel gave me two minutes at the top to take photos. There were more invited guests than they had expected, so they asked any South Sudanese who were sitting in the stands to please give their seats to the guests. All the generals graciously got up, giving their seats away and standing for the day-long festivities. The new national anthem was playing and flags were waving. Patriotism and peaceful excitement was the vibe.
Somehow I was able to work my way past the other press people and secure a prime spot in the main area under the podium, where the invited guests and heads of state were seated. I stood among the security teams, with a few other photographers who’d also escaped the crowds.
The heat was intense and pretty soon people started fainting. Even before the ceremony began, the Red Cross was whisking them away on stretchers.
Despite a warrant for his arrest by the International Criminal Court, there were rumors that Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, was coming. And he did!
The ceremony began and the pageantry was spectacular. Nobody seemed to mind the sweltering heat and harsh sun. We were making history. As I feared, my camera did freeze up again but I resorted to the small backup and refused to be disappointed. The experience was going to have to be enough.
Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, signed the new constitution. They lowered the Sudanese flag and raised the Republic of South Sudan flag. The speeches were beautiful. Susan Rice represented the US and Bashir officially recognized South Sudan’s independence.
The finale was the President speech. It was humble, thoughtful and poignant. He acknowledged the sacrifices made by everyone during the war, particularly those who’d lost their lives and loved ones. He thanked the international community for all of their support. To the people of the oil rich, contested, states of Abyei and South Kordofan, he pledged, “We have not forgotten you. When you cry, we cry. When you bleed, we bleed.” At the same time, he brought it back around to the positive offering amnesty and forgiveness to past enemies. Lastly, he contended that there are many who expect the country to fall into civil war and encouraged the citizens of the new country to work together saying, “We know the world will be watching to see if our first steps as a new nation will be steady and confident.”
I walked back with the same mob I’d come to the event with, feeling very proud for these wonderful South Sudanese people, whom I’d just come to know over the last two years. As of this day, South Sudan is officially the world’s newest country, and now one of the world’s poorest.
The celebrations were concluded with fireworks, marking South Sudan’s newfound independence, and a future filled with hope for this new nation.