JUBA, South Sudan — On Saturday, the world officially welcomed the new country of South Sudan into the fold, promising support to the war-torn nation even while warning of perils ahead.
Tens of thousands of South Sudanese gathered to witness the independence day ceremonies and to celebrate the newly born state, chanting "We will never surrender" and "South Sudan oyee" in glee.
Youths cheered with intense patriotic fervor, while many older South Sudanese appeared introspect and overcome with emotion as world leaders recognized their homeland's full sovereignty.
"For South Sudan, independence is not a gift you were given. Independence is a prize you have won," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who headed the American delegation to Juba, South Sudan's capital.
It was indeed a long and arduous path to statehood for the nation — roughly the size of Texas — and its more than 8 million inhabitants, who fought and suffered through two grueling civil wars against Sudan's colonially anointed northern Arab rulers. Some 2 million are thought to have died in the struggle.
As the national flag of Sudan was lowered, and South Sudan's own green, red, and black-striped flag was slowly raised atop a 100-foot pole, the crowd erupted into rapturous cheers.
"We have waited for 56 years for this day. It is a dream that has come true," the nation's leader, President Salva Kiir, said in a speech.
Besides the U.S., representatives from East Africa, China, Europe, the United Nations, and the Arab League also spoke at the event, which was not without its awkward moments and hitches.
Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, whose nation shrinks roughly a third after the loss of the African-inhabited South Sudan, attended as a special guest of honor and speaker, despite poor relations with Kiir and an international arrest warrant issued against him on genocide charges in Darfur.
The fugitive Sudanese leader's presence created an uncomfortable situation for the Western delegates present, who insisted on seating arrangements that would keep them from even having to pass in front of the shunned leader.
Justice advocacy groups warned that even a handshake with Bashir would send the wrong signal.
"Any contact by U.S. officials with al Bashir at such an occasion would be wholly inconsistent with the United States' expressed commitment to justice for crimes in Darfur," said Balkees Jarrah, international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch.
There were technical problems, too. At one point, the sound system went off for 20 minutes, pausing the itinerary, which was already running a couple hours behind the official schedule.
Kiir apologized for the hiccups, saying they are part of the substantial growing pains ahead for a nation that lacks almost any infrastructure or functional government institutions.
"The challenges are great, but we must begin the task of facing up to them right away from today," he said.
Despite the formal show of partnership, tension is near an all-time high between Kiir and Bashir. Talks in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa on remaining disputes over how to split the country — including about the disputed border district Abyei, oil revenues and national debt — have faltered in recent weeks as the north militarily invaded Abyei and started another bloody campaign against southern allies in the northern border state South Kordofan.
The new nation's ascendance caps a long Western intervention to end Sudan's deadly wars. The diplomatic engagement will continue. The U.S. already has spent billions of dollars in bolstering South Sudan since the 2005 peace deal, and it has pledged to lead an international effort to support the baby state.
South Sudan, which produces more than $4 billion of oil revenue annually and possesses swaths of rich fertile land and herds of cattle but faces violent internal strife and tribal divisions, could be economically self-sufficient if it becomes politically stable.
"We have to continue to work as hard as we can to ensure that the promise and potential of southern Sudan is not lost," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson.
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