JUBA, South Sudan — The celebrations erupted at midnight. Thousands of revelers poured into Juba’s steamy streets in the predawn hours on Saturday, hoisting enormous flags, singing, dancing and leaping on the back of cars.
“Freedom!” they screamed.
A new nation was being born in what used to be a forlorn, war-racked patch of Africa, and to many it seemed nothing short of miraculous. After more than five decades of an underdog, guerrilla struggle and two million lives lost, the Republic of South Sudan, Africa’s 54th state, was about to declare its independence in front of a who’s who of Africa, including the president of the country letting it go: Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, a war-crimes suspect.
Many of those who turned out to celebrate, overcome with emotion, spoke of their fathers, mothers, sons and daughters killed in the long struggle to break free from the Arab-dominated north.
“My whole body feels happy,” said George Garang, an English teacher who lost his father, grandfather and 11 brothers in the war.
By sunrise, the crowds were surging through the streets of Juba, the capital, to the government quarter, where the declaration of independence would be read aloud. Thousands of soldiers lined the freshly painted curbs, tiger patches on their arms, assault rifles in their hands. This new nation is being built on a guerrilla army — the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, whose field commanders are now South Sudan’s political leaders — and the amount of firepower here is unnerving.
By 9 a.m., the sun was dangerous. The faces, necks and arms of the people packed thousands deep around a parade stand built for the occasion were glazed with sweat. A woman abruptly slumped to the dirt and was whisked away.
“She fainted because she’s happy,” said a man in the crowd. “There will be many others today.”
In a column of black polished steel, one brand-new Mercedes after another, came the African leaders: Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president; Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s; Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia; Teodoro Obiang, Equatorial Guinea’s president and chairman of the African Union; Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s president; and Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, among others.
But, almost inexplicably, Mr. Bashir, who for years prosecuted a vicious war to keep the south from splitting off and to prevent this very day from happening, drew the loudest burst of applause when his motorcade rolled in.
“It is not happiness,” explained Daniel Atem, dressed in a suit and tie for the occasion, a miniflag flying from his lapel. “If you are talking to your enemy, you cannot say, You are bad.” But, he added, “you know what is in your heart.”
From the mid-1950s, even before Sudan shook off its colonial yoke in 1956, the southern Sudanese were chafing for more rights. Sudan had an unusually clear fault line, reinforced by British colonizers, with the southern third mostly animist and Christian and the northern part majority Muslim and long dominated by Arabs.
The southern struggle blew up into a full-fledged rebellion in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s, and the Sudanese government responded brutally, bombing villages and unleashing Arab militias that massacred civilians and enslaved southern Sudanese children. Many of the same scorched-earth tactics associated with the crisis in Darfur, in Sudan’s west, in the mid-2000s, were tried and tested long before that here in southern Sudan. (The International Criminal Court has indicted Mr. Bashir on genocide charges for the Darfur massacres.)
The central government also sowed divisions among the southerners, turning ethnic groups against one another. Some of the most unspeakable violence, like the Bor massacre in 1991 when toddlers were impaled on fence posts, was internecine.
Christian groups had been championing the southern Sudanese since the 19th century. And their efforts paid off in 2000 when George W. Bush was elected president of the United States. He elevated Sudan to near the top of his foreign policy agenda, and in 2005, the American government pushed the southern rebels and the central government — both war weary and locked in a military stalemate — to sign a comprehensive peace agreement that guaranteed the southerners the right to secede.
On Saturday, one man held up a sign that said “Thank You George Bush.”
The American-backed treaty set the stage for a referendum this January in which southerners voted by 98.8 percent for independence.
At 1:20 p.m. on Saturday, the southerners officially proclaimed their freedom.
“Recalling the long and heroic struggle of our people,” began the legislative speaker, James Wani Igga.
A few minutes later, the flag of Sudan was lowered and the new South Sudan flag (actually quite similar, plus a star) was raised. The masses exploded in one loud roar.
“Mabrook Janoob Sudan!” they yelled. “Congratulations South Sudan!”
South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, wearing his signature black cowboy hat given to him by Mr. Bush, signed the interim Constitution. Then the speeches began.