GLENDALE, Ariz. – Tut Gatyiel didn't have a choice when he fled his home in Southern Sudan as a boy because of civil war.
He had no choice but to walk 1,000 perilous miles through the desert for three months to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and he had no power to save the lives of his parents and other family members killed during the war.
Now for the first time in his life, Gatyiel has a choice about affairs in Southern Sudan.
Gatyiel and hundreds of other survivors of the war now living in the U.S. are registering to vote to decide whether Southern Sudan secedes from the north in the northeastern African nation. The Jan. 9 vote could see the creation of the world's newest country and give Southern Sudan independence.
"It's very important that we decide our fate," said Gatyiel, who now lives in Phoenix and is acting as an assistant chairman for the city's voting station. "It's been a long struggle for our nation, for our people."
Predominantly Christian southerners fought a 21-year civil war against the Muslim northern government in which 2 million people died and more than 1 million headed north to escape the fighting. About 3,800 war orphans known as the Lost Boys of Sudan resettled in the U.S.
The 2005 peace agreement that ended the war allowed Southern Sudan to share power in the national government, gave it a measure of autonomy and provided for an independence referendum at the end of the deal's transition period.
Voter registration in the U.S. is under way at three sites in Glendale, Ariz., Omaha, Neb., and Alexandria, Va. until Dec. 8. Five more sites are expected to open within the next week in Dallas, Chicago, Boston, Seattle and Nashville, Tenn., and other survivors who have resettled across the globe are registering to vote in Canada, Australia, Egypt and Great Britain, among other countries.
Hundreds of Lost Boys already have traveled in caravans to Phoenix from California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and other Western states to register. They will have to make the trip again the week of Jan. 9 to cast votes, the results of which will be sent to the Southern Sudanese government. They'll be added to votes cast by people living in Southern Sudan.
"This is just one of those defining moments that's so critical in the future for their people and their country," said Ann Wheat, founder of the Arizona Lost Boys Center in Phoenix, where 600 Lost Boys have resettled.
"It's beyond just having the chance to vote," Wheat said. "It's about putting a whole structure in place and demanding that right to vote and being able to say, 'Alright, we're over here in the U.S., but we're going to help be part of this, get the word out and make sure people have a say.'"
Dozens of poll workers and observers from the Southern Sudanese government and the Atlanta-based Carter Center staff the Glendale church where Lost Boys and some women who also survived the war are registering.
A prospective voter gets a laminated registration card after providing identification and a fingerprint. If they don't have proper identification, they are interviewed by trained "identifiers" who verify whether the person is from Southern Sudan based on physical characteristics, language and other factors.
After receiving a registration card, the voter must then dip their left index finger in a blue dye that lasts for two weeks — a measure meant to prevent the same person from registering twice. They must bring the registration card back when they vote in January.
"It feels amazing," said James Chuong Chan, a 30-year-old Lost Boy who lives in Phoenix and registered to vote on Friday. "We now live in the United States and it's a free country. That's what I want for Southern Sudan — freedom for my country."
Chan's family still lives in Southern Sudan, and he said achieving independence will make their lives better.
Gatyiel, who is helping to register Sudanese voters in Phoenix, said some are so eager that they are waiting outside when he arrives in the morning.
"This is a historical event, big time," he said.
Gatyiel's parents were killed during the civil war — his mother from water poisoned by a chemical bomb and his father while he was moving to escape the conflict. Gatyiel's nine brothers and sisters still live in Southern Sudan.
He said he is voting for independence so his siblings can know peace and to honor his parents.
"We're deciding not only for those who are alive, but also for those who are dead," he said.
International Organization for Migration: http://www.iom.int/jahia/jsp/index.jsp
Lost Boys: http://www.azlostboyscenter.org/