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Sudanese refugees see hope in vote

Refugees living in Utah must travel to have voice

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SALT LAKE CITY — Madut Kondok's apartment on the west side of Salt Lake City's Capitol Hill isn't much. He doesn't have a real clock in the living room; he keeps time using an electronic stopwatch hanging from a nail in the ceiling. Except for a mattress shoved in the corner and a sheet tacked over the window, the bedroom is bare. The kitchen stove is rusty. The bathroom tile is cracked and molding.

But it may as well be a palace.

"I have a good life," said the 31-year-old Sudanese refugee, with a grateful grin. The white of his teeth contrasts sharply with his midnight skin. "I am so happy to be safe. I am so happy to have freedom."

Kondok has only one wish: to give those things — safety and freedom — to the people he left behind in Sudan, where, as a 13-year-old boy, he was separated from his family and driven from the country by machine-gun-wielding government officials. After decades of civil war fueled by political and religious dissension, he may have that chance. Sudan will vote on a referendum in January that will allow the southern part of the country to secede from the north. Kondok hopes, he said, clasping his big hands to his chest, to cast his vote.

"To vote — it would be huge, my first time in life," he said. "In a country like Sudan, you don't have that right. You don't have a say."

There are a few things, though, standing in his way.

Sudan has made provisions to make voting available to refugees living in the United States, but Sudanese must make two trips to one of eight voting stations located throughout the country — one to register and one to vote. Though there are several thousand refugees living in Utah, the state was not chosen to host a voting station. Many refugees, like Kondok, live in poverty and cannot afford to travel. Voting registration closes Dec. 22 and, so far, only 44 of Utah's Sudanese have made the journey.

"So many have been unable to register," said Ladu Jada Gubek, chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum task Force for the United States. "We've tried to raise money to get people to the voting stations, but it has been a great challenge."

Gubek, during a phone call from Minnesota, doesn't hide his dismay. The country has been working toward this vote since — with mediation from the international community — the Sudan People's Liberation Movement signed a peace agreement with the government of Sudan in 2005. Southerners see the referendum as the end to a 50-year-long struggle for equal rights. The north, however, which stands to lose oil revenues in addition to political power if the south claims its independence, is fighting tooth and nail to postpone or invalidate the vote.

"We must pass this referendum," Gubek said. "It is a choice, I think, between life and death for Southern Sudan."

Southern Sudanese living in Utah view the issue just as passionately.

"This is important," said Othow Awang, 42, who lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and four children. "This is the future of my country."

But it's more than that. It's also personal.

"I cannot remember a time when war was not a part of my life," said Awang, who is a photo specialist at Walmart. Growing up in Southern Sudan, all the children knew: when the shooting starts, run for the bushes. The day he left the country, northerners open fired on Awang's high school. Few survived.

Anjelomalek Deng, 35, a shift manager at Walmart, counts himself "one of the lucky ones" because when he was kidnapped and tortured — as many of his college-age peers were — he escaped with his life and both legs. Many close to him didn't fare so well. As an 11-year-old boy, Deng watched as a group of soldiers beat and raped his 14-year-old cousin. She later died from her injuries. Upon hearing of the incident, his aunt ripped off her clothes and fled her home, her mind — once sharp as a tack — broken.

"This war doesn't differentiate between women and children and soldiers," he said.

All these things were on the two men's minds as they scraped together money to travel to Phoenix to register for the vote. Deng dipped into his savings to buy a plane ticket. Awang pooled his money with friends, rented a car and drove 12 hours through a blizzard. Neither one has any idea how he will afford to make another trip next month.

"I will make it work," Deng said. "I do not have a choice. I don't want to see my people go through this again."

Abraham Aguer, chairman of Utah's chapter of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, hasn't given up hope either. In other areas of the country, community members have stepped in to charter buses for the refugees. He still believes he can raise enough money to get a bus load of refugees — including Kondok — registered. His biggest concern now, though, is making sure those who have already registered make it to the polls Jan. 9. If 60 percent of registered voters do not cast a ballot, the vote will be invalid, he said.

"We need 100 percent voter turnout," Aguer said. "We cannot risk it."

More than 3.2 million voters in South Sudan have registered, according to a report published in the Sudan Tribune on Wednesday. In Australia, 9,431 have registered; 2,294 in Canada; 2,985 in Egypt; 7,370 in Ethiopia; 15,021 in Kenya; 13,291 in Uganda; and 654 in the United Kingdom. Kondok, in the meantime, watches from the sidelines with thousands of other Utah Sudanese. Hoping.

He fled Sudan after government officials opened fire on his school in 1992. He didn't sleep for three days. His feet bled. At one point, he was so weak from lack of food that he laid down at the side of the road and wished for death. But his family, who he hasn't seen for 18 years, remain in the country.

"I talk to them," Kondok said. "Things are not good."

For them, for all Southern Sudanese, he hopes.

"We have to do what we can to make it stop," he said. "This war has got to stop."

For more information, visit www.southsudanreferendumusa.com. To help Utah's South Sudanese, contact Abraham Aguer at 801-897-4195.

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com