PHOENIX — Wol Dhieu Akujang's long wait for freedom to come to his village in war-ravaged Sudan began 20 years ago with a perilous 1,000-mile walk.
At age 6, he endured choking thirst, aching hunger and the constant terror of ambushes as he and hundreds of others traveled to a refugee camp in nearby Ethiopia. Then came safety in the United States.
On Sunday, he and thousands of other Sudanese refugees will head to the polls in eight U.S. cities to decide whether the Southern Sudan should secede from the North, creating the world's newest country.
"It's a vote to be able to determine our own destiny, to have dreams," said Akujang, 27, who lives in Tucson, Ariz. Roughly 600 so-called Lost Boys like Akujang have resettled in Arizona.
Almost 4 million voters registered in the last several months, including 116,000 southerners who live in Sudan's north and 60,000 in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Britain, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
"For the first time, I feel like I have a say in the process. I have a say in determining my own future and the future of South Sudan," Akujang said.
With the vote, however, comes a sobering reality.
The fresh taste of freedom and the joy of potential reunions with their lost families will quickly be replaced by the difficult work of building a nation wracked by a 21-year civil war.
The war between the Muslim northern government and predominantly Christian southerners left about 2 million people dead. More than 1 million fled the north to escape the fighting.
Sunday's vote is the culmination of a 2005 peace deal. And last month, thousands of Sudanese in caravans traveled hundreds of miles to the polling sites, from Phoenix to Boston, to register to vote.
Beginning Sunday and continuing for seven days, they will dip their thumb in ink and mark a blank circle on a card next to either "unity" or "secession."
In Portland, Maine, about 400 people of Sudanese descent registered to vote. The next hurdle was to find a way to get to suburban Boston to cast their ballots.
Community organizers attempted to hire five charter buses to get the group to Boston on Sunday, but there wasn't enough money. So voters were on their own to find transportation.
While their numbers are small, the Portland residents are determined to make their voices heard.
Vincent Odong fled his homeland in 2000 after being harassed and tortured for distributing aid and educating children through his African Inland Church.
Odong said his fingers were pinched with pliers; he said others were arrested, disappearing for weeks at a time. Many were tortured and killed.
"We're dreaming to get independence for the south," said Odong, who's part of the Acholi people, the largest Sudanese ethnic group in Portland. "We are eagerly waiting for the time to come."
The Southern Sudan Referendum Commission oversees out-of-country voting in the referendum. The group is independent from the governments in Sudan. Its members must be Sudanese, at least 40 years old, literate and cannot have been convicted of a crime involving lying or be immoral.
The International Organization for Migration is helping the commission, and the Atlanta-based Carter Center is overseeing polling sites.
As independent observers watch, polling staff at each U.S. site will count the votes immediately after polls close on Jan. 15 and announce them that night. The results will be sent to the commission in Sudan, not to a government entity.
Southerners are expected to vote overwhelmingly for secession. The referendum needs 50 percent plus one vote to pass, along with a 60 percent turnout of registered voters.
Makhat Makuaach, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., said he will vote for independence.
"I am very excited because that is what I have been waiting for for 21 years," said Makuaach, who left Sudan in 1989 when he was 9 or 10 years old. "People died trying to achieve what we are going to do on the 9th of January."
There were concerns that the central government in Khartoum could manipulate the votes from the north, but only 160,000 voters are registered there so any meddling with those results would likely be too insignificant to affect the outcome.
Final results aren't expected to be verified until the end of January. It is likely, however, that the vote's outcome will be known well before then.
"For centuries, the people of South Sudan have not been considered as full and equal partners in the running of their country," said Ann Wheat, founder of the Arizona Lost Boys Center in Phoenix.
Lost Boys are men who survived the war by leaving their villages as children and walking to refugee camps. Many of their parents died during the war.
Wheat said the Lost Boys have been able to talk of little else but the upcoming voting.
"I saw one wearing a sweat shirt with the Sudanese flag that says 'vote or die,'" Wheat said. "They see it in literally life or death terms. For them, freedom is life."
Sudanese will travel from across the West to vote at a church in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale.
Akujang delayed a six-month trip back to Sudan because he wanted to register in Glendale and vote there on Sunday. He will leave for Sudan on Tuesday so he can see the aftermath of the historic vote.
Akujang wants to try to help any way he can.
He wants to get his graduate degree in public health at the University of Arizona so he can return to Sudan and help prevent diseases like cholera, which killed his father in 1993. He was able to visit his mother in 2005.
"What I went through was terrible and horrifying," he said. "I don't want another child to go through what I went through."
Associated Press writers David Sharp in Portland, Maine, and Travis Loller from Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.