JUBA, Sudan – Holding white cloths to symbolize peace, more than 10,000 people cheered as Sudan's president motored into football stadium here Monday to celebrate the end of a war that raged around this city for 21 years, killing, maiming and displacing millions of southern Sudan's (search) people.
Wearing a white African robe rather than his usual Arab or military dress, President Omar el-Bashir (search) waved to the crowd from an open car that took him topersonnel.
The cheering showed how much the peace signed in Nairobi (search) on Sunday had transformed the atmosphere in southern Sudan. While Juba, the biggest city in the south, remained in government hands throughout the civil war, the majority of its 160,000 people are southerners of African tribes who resented the rule of the Arabic-speaking government in Khartoum.
For more than an hour before his arrival, tribal performers warmed up the crowd, dancing and singing to the beat of drums and tambourines under the tropical sun. Spectators waved national flags and the red-white-black-green and yellow flag of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army. Some spectators held leaflets printed with pictures of el-Bashir as well as the two men who signed the peace accord: Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha and SPLA leader John Garang.
But many spectators carried the simplest of flags — a piece of white cloth — which represented peace.
However, many people in Juba remain cautious about the what the future holds following a conflict that killed more than 2 million people, mainly through war-induced famine and disease, and drove another 4 million more from their homes.
"People keep asking me, 'Father, is it true that peace has come, finally?"' said a local priest, Father Santo Loku Pio, on Sunday.
Helda Gokunta, a 42-year-old janitor at the University of Juba, said Sunday she was overjoyed.
"If I die today, then I will die in peace because we used to be living in a huge prison but now with the peace treaty everything is open, especially our hearts," Gokunta said.
Gokunta, like many of Juba's mainly Christian and animist residents, suffered greatly during the conflict. Her mother, father and brother were killed and she has not seen or heard of her other brother in 5 years.
SPLA leader Garang comes from Juba, and one of the banners strung across a city street sang his praises. About 10,000 people marked the signing of the peace treaty Sunday by marching through the city to the main cathedral.
Under the peace treaty, Garang becomes first vice president of Sudan, and southern Sudanese will vote in a referendum on self-determination in six years' time.
The treaty set out plans for sharing legislative power and natural resources, including oil — large deposits of which exist in the south.
The war had pitted the Islamic-dominated government in Khartoum against rebels who had sought greater autonomy and more of the country's wealth for the south.
The fighting began in the 1950s and a fragile peace was reached in 1973. The civil war restarted 10 years later, when the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum tried to impose Islamic law on the south. Under the latest agreement, Islamic law can be used in the north without infringing on the rights of non-Muslims living there or in the south.
The southern accord has raised hopes a power-sharing formula can be reached to halt fighting in the western region of Darfur, where tens of thousands of people have died in a conflict that began almost two years ago between rebels and government forces, which are accused of backing Arab militias known as the Janjaweed.