South Sudan’s referendum on secession was promised under a 2005 north-south peace deal ending Africa’s longest civil war.
Most expect the south to vote to break away. And aggressive rhetoric by northern officials has led many southerners to leave the north, fearing discrimination in the aftermath of the split.
In Khartoum’s slum camps, which stretch for miles into the desert, most residents are people who fled fighting in Sudan’s south and the western Darfur region. For decades they have asked for electricity, running water and other services.
What they often got instead was the bulldozing of their homes by authorities who want the land for the capital’s fast-expanding businesses and population.
“We are second-class citizens. If I was first class I’d get services, help, jobs, but we don’t,” said Deng.
She could be a poster girl for unity. Her grandmother was from Darfur, her mother from the north, her father from the south and she married a man from the central Abyei region.
She says she’s not going back home to live with her husband in Abyei, one of the most underdeveloped parts of Sudan.
“I have six kids. In Abyei there is absolutely nothing for them. What am I going to do back there? I’m staying right here,” she said resolutely.
Many southerners in the north fear their homes and jobs will be taken away when the south separates, as leaders from the north and south have yet to agree on their citizenship status.
The mudbrick huts around Deng’s home in Mayo stand empty and with walls broken down, after residents dragged away south their beds, chairs and every last possession.
“People are leaving now because they are scared — no one has told us what’s going to happen to us,” said Angelo Dawut from Warrap state in the south.
He works in the police and is worried after President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said all southerners would be sacked from government jobs post-secession. But he says he’s not going to leave just yet.
“Sudan means the land of the blacks, so how can the blacks leave it?” He said. The Arabic meaning of Sudan is “land of the blacks”. Southerners view themselves as black Africans while northerners associate themselves more with Arabs.
Slums around Khartoum were as deserted as voting centres in the north, and U.N. figures said southerners were travelling south at a rate of 2,000 a day.
An estimated 2 million southerners live in the north.
But hundreds of unlucky southerners have got stuck as money from the south Sudan government to pay for their travel home ran out.
Surrounded by trucks crammed with plastic water cans, furniture and other goods they feared were unavailable down south, hundreds squatted by the road huddling together under thick blankets to shelter from the harsh winter wind.
“We’ve been sitting here for a month waiting — we have nowhere to go,” said Awatif Derdoum, originally from Bor in the south. Transport was supposed to be provided by southern authorities but has not turned up.
They have sold their houses, prompted by the invitation of the southern government in Juba to go back to vote, but somehow the money has dried up.
Many are now as disillusioned with the south as they are with the northern government.
“What should I vote for? Down there they don’t care about us, up here they don’t care, I just want to go home and farm my land,” said Gabriel Wol from Wau town in the south.
Deng said she was terrified of being left alone in the north. “My heart is in my hands. Every day I wonder what’s going to happen,” she said.
But she said she would stay put.
“They will come back. When things settle down and everyone has agreed, southerners will return here.” Reuters