DUK PAYUEL, Southern Sudan — Gabriel Manyok, 27, often marveled at the television images of Americans lining up to vote. He wondered whether he would ever participate in the great exercise of democracy.

He was particularly inspired when Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the United States.

On Sunday, Manyok will get his chance when he votes in Sudan’s first multi-party elections in 24 years. The voting starts April 11 and lasts through April 13. (Read about how a raft of last minute boycotts undermined the vote.)

“I will enjoy it because it will be the first time I will see voting, and all of us will exercise our human rights,’’ Manyok said.

More than two decades of civil war prevented elections in Sudan. In that war, Arab soldiers from the north invaded the predominantly Christian and animist south to convert people to Islam. More than 2 million people were killed and 5 million more were displaced in refugee camps. Refugees began returning home after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005.

Manjok was one of those going home to the south. He was 4 when he and his family fled their village, Duk Payuel, in 1987. After living in refugee camps in southern Sudan, Kenya and Uganda for more than 20 years, Manjok returned to Duk Payuel in 2007 where he does community outreach work for the Duk Lost Boys Clinic. In December, he registered voters. The big push, he said, was urging people to register so they could participate in the referendum which will take place in 2011.

The prospect of voting is a significant milestone for Sudan, but the majority of people in southern Sudan are focused on the January 2011 referendum that will determine whether or not southern Sudan can secede from northern Sudan and form its own independent country.

Most southern Sudanese view the upcoming elections as a first step toward achieving freedom.

Even before the voting starts, however, the elections have been marred by widespread allegations of vote rigging. Several candidates have announced they are boycotting the polls.

In December, I traveled to southern Sudan with a group of former “Lost Boys’’ who are building schools, clinics and wells in their villages.

In dozens of interviews, people told me they were more excited about the referendum coming up in 2011. They knew Salva Kiir Mayardit, chairman of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), is one of the candidates. But most knew very little of the other candidates vying for the 171-member seat Assembly.

Sudan’s President Omar Hasan al-Bashir — who has been charged by the International Criminal Court with seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities in Darfur — is running for re-election. Eleven other candidates were running against him but in recent weeks many of them have announced they are boycotting the polls.

Bashir has said that he wants a united Sudan, but promised to honor the referendum if it favors separation.

No matter what happens in the upcoming elections, some southern Sudanese said they are prepared to return to the battlefield for their independence.

“To me, we need to be independent,’’ Manyok said. “We’re capable of making a national republic. We don’t want to be with the Arabs. I will vote for separation because there’s nothing left. I want us to be our own nation of black Sudanese.’’

The United Nations and other aid groups say continuing inter-ethnic violence is hampering its ability to respond to emergencies and provide health care, education, sanitation and water in southern Sudan.

A coalition of 10 aid organizations warned that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was on the brink of collapse because of a “lethal cocktail’’ of rising violence, chronic poverty and political tensions. Some observers fear that the north will not give up the oil-rich south without a fight.

Gov. Paul Malong Awen Anei, of Aweil Town, said security is a concern in southern Sudan and officials fear it could threaten the referendum.

Southern Sudan, he said, cannot reconcile with the north, simply because the Arab government wants to share in the south’s wealth.

“How much are we buying this liberty? They’re sucking our resources,’’ said Anei, who was a commander with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. "If we managed to fight a war for 21 years, I can go back [to war]. Why should we be forced to divide our resources with the north? It is our right. They have to accept it.’’

Yar Akech, 26, who lives in Juba, said the referendum is the best hope for southern Sudan.
“We’ve got to have our own southern Sudan because we lost too many lives,’’ she said. “The suffering has been long for us.’’

Akech’s father died from the lack of health care, leaving her mother to raise six children in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya.

She was among a number of young people the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement helped secure scholarships to finish high school and college. She was a protege of the late John Garang, the leader of southern Sudan before he died in a helicopter crash in 2005.

After receiving a degree in economics from a university in Kenya, Akech returned to southern Sudan in 2005 to promote girls education and drill wells.

“I think the referendum is the way to go for southern Sudan,’’ she said.

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