At church in Kuli Papa, the congregation was told that yesterday's vote was the "last bullet" in a half-century of struggle for independence. As the sermon ended, the villagers streamed out of the mud-and-wattle house of worship and, like millions of other southern Sudanese, went to vote for separation.
After more than two decades of war and five years of uneasy peace, the referendum on whether to split the vastness of Sudan got under way at dawn with long lines queuing with a single purpose: secession. In the village of Kuli Papa, there was a sense of transformation. A blighted handful of grass tukul homes north of Juba, it witnessed some of the last shots fired in the 22-year war between the Arab-led government in the North and the predominantly Christian and animist South. Now it was witnessing a new beginning.
"This was a battlefield for most of my life," said village elder Mathias Mogga Mohamed, who lost four of his brothers in the conflict. "Now we want to be free." The 61-year-old lived through attacks from helicopter gunships, bombs rolled out of Russian-made Antonov transport planes, and the relentless, shifting lines of guerrilla war.
This bitter legacy was briefly forgotten yesterday as women sang songs of celebration in the church and bicycles decorated with "secession" flags were ridden to the polling station that was under the shade of a neem tree.
"These ballots will determine what happens next," said Mogga Mohamed. "This is freedom."
Down by the Papa River, a crippled battletank lies rusting on the baked earth and the surrounding sorghum fields are still littered with land mines. Only one-fifth of the pre-war population has returned home, the remainder scattered, from Juba to Uganda, and from Canada to the United States.
Among the more famous members of the diaspora to return to vote was the rap star and former child soldier Emmanuel Jal. Arriving at Juba airport, the musician and activist sounded a warning that yesterday's largely peaceful vote would not have been possible without concerted international pressure. Jal, who was smuggled out of Sudan aged 11 to prevent him having to fight for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, has been part of a high-profile campaign to focus international public opinion on the multiple crises in Sudan. "We've put light on this situation and without light there would have been war," he said.
The hip-hop artist, who shot to fame with the 2008 album War Child, said that the expected split was the fault of the government in Khartoum which had treated southerners as "slaves" and economically ruined the South. "This isn't about oil, it's about identity," he said. "It's about living in a country where you are recognised as a first-class citizen and African."
Sudan's oil remains the single most explosive issue. Should the secession campaign achieve the 60 per cent turnout it needs during this week of voting, the division of oil revenues is expected to dominate the divorce negotiations that will follow. While a majority of known oil reserves are in the South, all the infrastructure for extracting it points north to Port Sudan. Diplomats close to the negotiations said that the South will be "made to pay" for a peaceful divorce.
The major concern remains the continuing uncertainty over the future of the oil-rich Abyei region, which is divided between the southern Dinka tribe and the Arab Missiriya. A decision on Abyei's future status has been deferred and at least six people died in clashes between armed Arab nomads and local tribes-people at the weekend.
Analysts are worried that a dispute over the region could develop into a "Kashmir-style" issue.
At the Juba memorial to John Garang – the man who led the southern uprising but died in a helicopter crash soon after a peace deal was struck in 2005 – there was a festival atmosphere. Southern Sudan President, Salva Kiir, cast his vote in front of a cheering crowd of hundreds including the actor and Sudan activist George Clooney and US Senator John Kerry.
"This is the historic moment the people of Southern Sudan have been waiting for," the President said.
Mary Anne Alier Avy had an even simpler message as she danced out of the poll booth singing: "Bye bye Arab."
"I'm very happy today," she said. "My husband was killed by the Arab gun but now we have our own country and they have their own country."
'I want South Sudan to be a great nation'
Chief Enosa Visensio Morbe, a 43-year-old community leader in the village of Kuli Papa, near Juba:
"We don't like them [the North]. We have been tired since 1956 [independence from Britain]. Those people who really know what happened in the struggle cannot vote for unity. Bashir came to the South and said we could vote for separation but we do not know if he is a goat or a lion. You can't trust his words. We have brothers in Australia, in Canada, in the US. If we build a country, they will come."
Nyakuma Deng Duoth, 22, a traditional singer from Upper Nile State:
"I voted for the independence of South Sudan. We cannot live together as one country with the North. We have been made slaves in the past and this time all we want is to be free. I want South Sudan to be a great nation. We have enough resources and enough knowledge to make this our own future."
Luka Lakasong, 49, a Sudan People's Liberation Movement election observer:
"If Arabs and Africans continue to live together, there will be no peace. God made them different to us even in their colour. As my cap says, we must vote wisely. This is a big day and we're asking God to lead us to paradise."
Gloria Emmanuel, 23, a student and evangelical preacher:
"It was written in the Bible a long time ago that this historic day would come. It's not an accident that this country is rising up. We wear black because it is the colour of our people."