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Originally published July 9, 2011 at 12:35 PM | Page modified July 10, 2011 at 7:31 PM

Mercy Corps blog: Independence Day in South Sudan

Joy Portella is in South Sudan and will be blogging from there over the next few days. She is the Seattle-based communications director at Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian agency that works in 40 countries around the world. She has traveled with Mercy Corps to numerous disaster zones including in Haiti, China, Pakistan and Japan.

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JUBA, South Sudan -- Today was an incredible day for the people of South Sudan – their Independence Day as South Sudan became the world’s 193rd country. I was fortunate enough to attend the official independence ceremony this morning with a couple of my Mercy Corps colleagues.

The day was long and hot but exhilarating. Festivities were held in the field and bleachers of the mausoleum of Dr. John Garang, a deceased national hero. I don’t have a formal count of attendees, but there must have been at least 100,000 people – most of them standing in the hot sun for hours just to catch a glimpse of the celebration of their country finally becoming a reality.

We arrived three hours early to get a seat, having heard that 5,000 “official” (read: seated) attendees were expected to show up and contend for just 1,400 seats. The pre-game show alone was remarkable: music, chanting and cheering along with the public arrival of hundreds of international VIPs ranging from US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. The crowds even enthusiastically cheered the entrance of Sudanese President Omar El Bashir, a man with whom the people of South Sudan have – on the best day – a complicated relationship.

The actual ceremony started about an hour late, which is almost timely by Sudanese standards. The most moving moments? It was incredible to see the raising of the flag of South Sudan for the first time – the crowd went wild – and the reading of the declaration of independence, which culminated with the words: “I hereby declare the Republic of South Sudan to be an independent and sovereign state.” The crowd went wild again.

The US was well represented – though President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton were both absent – by a delegation headed by Susan Rice and including former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Rice's remarks were poignant and powerful, including a salute to “those who did not live to see this moment” and a call to “honor their memory by working together to build South Sudan into a country worthy of their sacrifice.”

But more touching than the official moments was a vast array of unofficial, very human moments that together told the story of this day’s significance. There were the wounded veterans who marched proudly – many on crutches with blunted limbs – in the parade portion of the ceremony. There were the many crowd members wrapped in the flag of their new country who couldn’t stop dancing and smiling. There was the repeated embraces of South Sudanese from different states, religions and ethnic groups.

South Sudan will soon start the hard work of building a nation from the ground up in the face of challenges such as extreme poverty and lack of access to almost everything – roads, education, medical care, electricity – the list goes on. But today was a day to put those concerns aside to celebrate and imagine the possible. After decades of war and sacrifice, the South Sudanese have certainly earned their celebration.

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