Photos by Eric Brady | The Roanoke Times
Mithiang Lwat (left) and his son Deng Ashwil, 14, stock inventory at Lwat's AM Market store on Bennington Street in Roanoke. Lwat and others from Roanoke will be traveling to Arlington on Sunday to participate in Sudan's voting referendum.
Nabil Koueth (left) and Deng Ashwil, immigrants from Sudan, watch news about the voting referendum in Sudan at the AM Market on Bennington Street in Roanoke. Koueth and others from Roanoke will travel to Arlington to participate in the voting.
Southern Sudanese take part in a pro-separation rally Friday in the southern capital of Juba. Thousands of independence supporters rallied throughout the city just two days before voting takes place in a referendum that will determine if southern Sudan secedes from the north to form the world's newest country.
It has been 10 years since Peter Alier and thousands of other young men known as the Lost Boys of Sudan escaped war for new lives in the United States. On Sunday, they'll have a say for the first time in their battered country's future.
In a working-class house off 13th Street in Southeast Roanoke, Alier and his friends have been drinking black tea after work and discussing the vote for the split of Africa's largest country, on the continent's Arab and sub-Saharan axis. A photo of a now-dead rebel leader looks down from a wall.
"We didn't come here for economic reasons," said Alier, a college student and car factory worker in Roanoke. "We came here for political reasons."
Southern Sudan, beset by decades of war and marginalization, will decide whether to form a new country. Southerners -- mostly Christians and animists who follow traditional African beliefs -- are likely to choose separation from the predominantly Muslim north.
People in the southern diaspora, including some of the estimated 150 Sudanese refugees in the Roanoke and New River valleys, can vote at stations set up in dozens of U.S. cities. A caravan with at least 30 voters is scheduled to leave St. James Episcopal Church in Northwest Roanoke early Sunday for a polling station in Alexandria.
The referendum was guaranteed in a 2005 peace deal that ended Sudan's last civil war, which claimed about 2 million lives and displaced hundreds of thousands.
Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, a member of an Islamic party who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, was warmly received in the southern capital of Juba this week, saying he would celebrate any outcome of the referendum. But Alier and his friends, watching a television news report about the president's remarks, didn't hide their mistrust.
"Anything could happen. There could be a military coup tomorrow," said Gabriel Moja, 37.
The story of the Lost Boys, including Alier, 31, is one of the best known in Sudan's war because it is so tragic. They were children when they left their families to avoid being killed or enslaved by northern military.
But there are many other refugees. Moja, for example, was 17 when he was studying to be a teacher at a university in the country's capital, Khartoum, and joined a liberal student group called the African National Front.
They were monitored by government bureaucrats, and one of his classmates was incarcerated for a month for distributing pro-southern pamphlets, Moja said.
Some members of the group would leave social gatherings looking over their shoulders and would jump out of moving buses to avoid detection, Moja said. If no one jumped behind them, they weren't being followed.
"We developed survival strategies," said Moja, who helped other southern Sudanese register for the vote in Alexandria.
One friend, Rebecca Joh, 26, lived in Alier's refugee camp in Kenya before being sent to Richmond and later moving to Roanoke. She said some of her family members were shot to death.
On the Fourth of July here, she said, she hides in her room because the fireworks remind her of gunshots.
Alier was separated from his family before he turned 9. He spent two years in a camp in Ethiopia, then eight more years in Kenya.
A few months before he was flown to the United States, he was robbed by four men at gunpoint, he said. They checked his pockets and when they found nothing, demanded his clothes, he said. They took his brown T-shirt and black nylon pants and left him in his slippers. That night, his teacher was fatally shot.
Still, Alier and his friends said they remain optimistic and want to return to help Sudan. Alier assembles truck axles at the Westport Corp. plant in Northeast Roanoke and takes pre-law courses at Virginia Western Community College. He wants to help in southern Sudan's reconstruction, he said.
Earlier this week, Alier, Moja, Joh and three other Sudanese friends were watching news reports on Al Jazeera television about bombs that were apparently thrown from north to south, and about cow-herding tribes that live between the territories.
Alier said he became a Republican after President Bush signed the Sudan Peace Act in 2002, condemning the Khartoum government for genocide in the western region of Darfur, and backed the country's peace agreement in 2005.
"With Obama, we are not so sure," Joh said, shrugging his shoulders.
Alier is studying on a scholarship from the local Episcopal diocese, which paid for vans to take voters to Alexandria, he said. He's been inspired by help from people he never before knew, he said.
"In this country, there is no limit," Alier said. "Only you can limit yourself."
Moja, the former student activist, said 2008 was the first time he saw a new Sudan president being peacefully sworn into power -- via television from Washington. That's why he doesn't want to wait even one more day to vote in Sudan's referendum.
"Just missing a day -- you don't want that," Moja said. "You don't want any surprises."