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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sudanese Peace Treaty Offers Hope to Many

JUBA, Sudan -- Holding white cloths to symbolize peace, more than 10,000 people cheered as Sudan's president motored into a football stadium here on Monday to celebrate the end of a war that raged around this city for 21 years, killing, maiming and displacing millions of southern Sudan's people.

Wearing a white African robe rather than his usual Arab or military dress, Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir waved to the crowd from an open car that took him to a podium in the stadium center, guarded by about armed 70 security personnel.

"The money which we have been spending on war will now be spent on services and development in the south," el-Bashir promised in his address. The applause showed how the peace signed in Nairobi on Sunday had transformed the atmosphere in southern Sudan.

While Juba, the biggest city in the south, remained in government hands throughout the civil war, the majority of its 160,000 people are southerners from African tribes who resented the rule of the Arabic-speaking government in Khartoum. El-Bashir's government is pro-Islamic, but southerners follow Christian or animist faiths.

For more than an hour before el-Bashir's arrival, tribal performers danced and sang while spectators waved national flags and the red-white-black-green and yellow flag of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army.

But many spectators carried the simplest of flags -- a piece of white cloth -- which represented peace. The theme was continued when, shortly before el-Bashir spoke, 20 white doves were released from cages and flew across the stadium.

Many people in Juba remain cautious about the what the future holds following a conflict that killed more than 2 million people, mainly through war-induced famine and disease, and drove another 4 million from their homes.

The peace treaty provides for southerners to vote in a referendum on self-determination in six years' time. The government fears the south will vote to secede. El-Bashir made clear Monday he hopes southerners will vote to stay in Sudan, Africa's largest nation.

"Our ultimate goal is a united Sudan, which will not be built by war but by peace and development," el-Bashir told the rally. "You, the southerners, will be saying, 'We want a strong and huge state, a united Sudan.'"

The news that peace had been signed in Nairobi was met with disbelief as well as joy in Juba on Sunday.

"People keep asking me, 'Father, is it true that peace has come, finally?'" said a local priest, Father Santo Loku Pio.

Helda Gokunta, a 42-year-old janitor, suffered greatly during the war. Her mother, father and brother were killed, and she has not seen or heard from her other brother in 5 years.

"If I die today," she said after the treaty was signed, "then I will die in peace, because we used to be living in a huge prison, but now with the peace treaty everything is open, especially our hearts."

The southern accord has raised hopes that a power-sharing formula can be reached to halt fighting in the western region of Darfur, where tens of thousands of people have died in a conflict that began almost two years ago between rebels and government forces, which are accused of backing Arab militias.