Sudan votes, optimism abounds
What a day! Three parts euphoria, two parts earnest determination, a discreet but unmistakable twist of doubt, and a gut-busting side-order of unreasonably high expectations.
We arrived at our first polling station just after dawn on the shabby northern outskirts of Juba. Several people said they'd arrived at 0400 hoping to be first in the queue, but found others who had been waiting for hours already.
I walked, dutifully, along the entire line, trying to find someone, anyone, who would admit to supporting the idea of unity, rather than independence, for south Sudan. It's becoming a bit of a personal quest - does anyone know anyone here who is voting "no" to secession? Please... What happened to John Garang's dream - or was it mere politicking - of a loose alliance with Khartoum?
The police were out in force all day. Dozens of trucks laden with young uniformed men armed with guns and rather menacing truncheons. I only saw one man without a uniform carrying a machine gun all day - an encouraging change from the old days here.
Many voters told me why they wanted independence, but I don't think anyone put it more eloquently than Mary Francis Babodo, who had come home from a diplomatic job in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to register in her home village.
"I was born in a refugee camp," she said. "I went back to a refugee camp as a mother, and I don't want to go back to a refugee camp as an old woman."
This vote is, of course, only one small part of a much longer, more complicated process and today's euphoria will probably wear off pretty fast. But is Sudan on the right track? Among the foreign dignitaries in town for the referendum is the actor George Clooney, hoping to use his celebrity to keep the media, and a satellite monitoring project, focused on the region's trouble spots. "If it's messed up," he told me, "it could be one of the worst wars of the 21st Century."
But other observers seem to be stepping back from the alarmism of recent months. At a polling station in the centre of Juba, I spoke to former US President Jimmy Carter, who has spent years on mediation and other projects in the country. "The future has a lot of dangers. But the stabilising factor is one - one only. Nobody in Sudan wants to go back to war," he said, sounding fairly optimistic about north-south relations, but rather less so when it came to the challenges of building democracy in the south.