“South Sudan Oyee!,” the national anthem for the world’s newest country, which declared its independence on Saturday, played on repeat this weekend in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. Blaring from the open windows of cars, on cellphone ringtones, and on television and radio, the lyrics implore patriots to “stand up in silence and respect, saluting our martyrs whose blood cemented our national foundation.”
It isn’t simply a dramatized historical reference. More than 2 million people died during the north-south civil war that ended only in 2005.
Six years later, Juba, a garrison town during the war that saw much fighting, played host to more than 30 heads of state and high-level delegations. Juba International Airport was closed to commercial aircraft, and planes were landing in six-minute intervals to accommodate all the VIP arrivals, who included U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Colin Powell, Chinese representative Jiang Weixin, Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon, and American evangelical leader Franklin Graham.
Strict security measures—picture a heavily armed soldier or policeman every five yards or so—created a tense environment that virtually cleared the streets of most civilians in the days leading up to independence.
But the stifled atmosphere lifted in a frenzy of blasting music and honking horns on Friday night as Southern Sudanese counted down to midnight. Wearing dresses, hats, and capes fashioned from South Sudan’s flag, people took to the lampless streets with whistles, candles, and flaming aerosol cans. Cars with windows down and pickups with generator-powered speakers played raucous music as they sped through the streets with celebrating passengers even dangling from their roofs and hoods. Headlights and the odd sparkler lit up the scene, and church bells rang out.
“We want you to make noise, to beat drums and play music,” said a government minister, explaining the plans for the independence weekend at a press conference. “But we don’t want you to shoot guns,” a warning relevant in a place long steeped in armed rebellion.
On Saturday, at a memorial for South Sudan’s rebel leader John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash months after the 2005 peace accord was signed, thousands jostled for a glimpse of the African leaders who arrived in a column of black Mercedeses and Range Rovers to participate in the independence ceremony, among them Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, and Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan.
The ecstatic spectators pressed forward against hundreds of soldiers and police in formation until the blazing midday sun began to subdue the crowd. Dozens succumbed to the heat and dehydration and had to be carried away on stretchers by the South Sudan Red Cross.
Meanwhile, on a platform elevated high above the fray, the new transitional Constitution was signed and the South Sudanese flag was hoisted as the Sudanese flag was lowered. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir addressed his former countrymen/adversaries one last time, and South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, took the oath of office.
“I’m feeling well—I’m so excited because it was a dream that we never expected for a number of decades,” Thomas Wani, a member of Parliament, told The Daily Beast. “The people of southern Sudan suffered greatly, and we thank God that God has made [our independence] real.”
The challenges that lie ahead for the Republic of South Sudan are acute, and expectations are perhaps unrealistically high. Many of the most sensitive issues—the status of the contested region of Abyei, the location of the North and South’s long border, the sharing of oil that is largely found in the South but must be refined in the North—have not been settled. “Even on this day of jubilee we remain mindful of the challenges that await us,” said Ambassador Susan Rice shortly after the official declaration was made. “No true friend would offer false comfort. The path ahead will be steep.”
But through the weekend and the Monday national holiday, the mood was celebratory. Flag-adorned fans filled the freshly painted Juba stadium when the South Sudanese national soccer team faced off against a Kenyan team on Sunday night. South Sudan lost, but hope for the new country’s athletic prowess is certainly not lost. Scouts for the NBA are even in town for the independence with South Sudanese national and Chicago Bulls starter Luol Deng. “We may not be very good at football,” said the South Sudanese information minister to a group of journalists. “But I can assure you that when it comes to basketball, we will win.” South Sudan’s national basketball team will play against a Ugandan team tonight.