If you drive around Khartoum, one can easily forget that soon there is a referendum that could change the borders of Sudan forever.
Apart for a couple of street banners calling for one Sudan, there is a feeling that northerners have collectively given up on the idea of unity.
“And for good reason,” says our taxi driver Abdel Rahman. “The government hasn’t done anything for them to want to remain with us, now it’s too late to talk about unity. They had 5 years, they just woke up a month ago.”
Rahman however doubts about the viability of a southern independent state “there is nothing down there,” he says “but if they want to split, let it be”.
According to the latest population census, 500,000 southerners live in the north. This number could be higher or lower, it’s difficult to assess in a country where every statistic is politically charged.
The peace agreement signed in 2005 gives them the right to vote in the referendum for self-determination to be held in January.
Voter registration started on November 15 and I expected to see queues of southerners eager to take part in this historic moment … for southerners, these are the final laps in a deadly, decades-long struggle that cost the lives of an estimated two million people.
Instead, there was no one … staff sat there idly waiting for closing time. It could not come quick enough. “Actually,” says Jacob “since we opened the doors, only 30 people registered”.
While I was there, a team of EU observers showed up. They say that voters turnout is low throughout. One observer said that one centre has seen one person in nine days.
So where did these hundreds of thousands of southerners go?
We headed to Hay Yousef on the outskirts of Khartoum where many southerners live. And there, on a barren square, under the blistering sun, a pile of mattresses, beds, and suitcases … it just kept on swelling.
Children carrying cupboards, elderly bringing their belongings on donkey carts … soon they will all embark on a long journey to the south, the homeland that they had escaped at the height of the war.
Now they are making the return trip, this time escaping the potential of conflict.
“People are talking separation or unity, politicians are making threats and we don’t know what will happen,” says Marco, a 25-year- old medical student.
He came to the north as a toddler, now he is leaving with the idea of not returning. “we will build our country, make it nice like Khartoum,” he says.
One man butted into the conversation: “It does not matter whether its unity or independence, trouble is coming for both northerners and southerners” and in a country that knows the meaning of war and suffering so well, people rather feel safe than sorry.