Editor's note: Ellen Ratner wrote this op-ed for Fox News Opinion while working for a week in December with Christian Solidarity International as a volunteer in Southern Sudan. 

As I sat next to a contractor from the U.S government in Juba, Southern Sudan, he extolled the virtues of being in Africa during the birth of a new nation. The referendum vote on independence for Southern Sudan is scheduled for January 9, 2011. Anticipation of both war and peace and the uncertainty of what might happen is on everybody's mind.

North Sudan is primarily Arab-Muslim, the West (Darfur) is mostly African-Muslim, and the South is primarily Christian. During the course of two wars, the first of which began in 1956, and the second of which ended with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, millions of Sudanese were killed. According to Andrew Natsios, the former head of USAID during the Bush administration, over four million people were killed, making it the second largest war-related genocide in history.

Now, there are other challenges. I was present during a meeting between officials from Christian Solidarity International and South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir. According to President Kiir, Southern Sudan faces a "humanitarian catastrophe." Speaking to CSI, President Kiir explained that a mass exodus of Southern Sudanese from the North back to the South has just begun.

Southern Sudanese officials expect the sudden arrival of nearly half a million impoverished Southerners during the next six weeks, as people are leaving the North and the Northern government has demanded that they leave prior to the vote on the referendum. (IRIN, Aweil, Nov. 10, 2010).

The mass migration gains further momentum as levels of anti-Southern hate crimes in Northern Sudan rise as a reaction against the prospect of Southern Sudanese independence. "The Islamists don’t want Southerners in the North," Kiir claimed.

President Kiir predicted a dire pre-referendum humanitarian crisis under the best of circumstances. But he fears a more extensive catastrophe in the event of a resumption of war between the North and the South. Many of the people taken to the North have been held as slaves, and many of them will not be returning, forced instead to continue their servitude.

The tensions along the border continue to manifest and most humanitarian groups have stopped worrying about returnees or slavery in Southern Sudan. CSI has been in Southern Sudan since 1993. They alone, are still trying to stop slavery, and along with others, are trying to mitigate the impending disaster at the border.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently described Southern Sudan as a ”ticking time-bomb.”

Now, the only thing that can stop it from exploding is for the United States and the international community to engage in helping form the new Southern state, and ensuring that peacekeeping help is available where needed.

The world must not sit idly by as a potential disaster unfolds.

Ellen Ratner is Washington bureau chief for Talk Radio News Service and a Fox News contributor.