The sun hung fat and low on Friday evening when a puff of dust in the distance signalled the arrival of another bus from the north to this patch of scrubland. Then another. And another. Thirteen in all, packed with tired southern Sudanese families inside and, on top, everything they owned.
Years ago they had fled the war in southern Sudan to eke out a harsh existence in the capital, Khartoum. And now, as part of a massive exodus by road and river from north Sudan they had returned to witness their country's most historic moment since the end of British colonial rule.
"It was time for our people to come back to their homelands," said Deng Wol Kuach, a broad-shouldered man helping people off the bus as the sound of drums filled the air in the town of Aweil, in Northern Bahr el Ghazal state. "It is time to be free."
Today, up to 3.9 million southern Sudanese will begin voting in a week-long referendum on independence. On a simple ballot paper, in a country where illiteracy is the norm, they will place a thumbprint next to a picture of clasped hands -- the symbol of unity -- or an open hand, if the choice is separation. After decades of deliberate neglect by the Arab-led Muslim north, and north-south civil war for 37 out of the 54 years since Sudan achieved independence from Britain, there is no doubt which option will prove more popular.
Africa's biggest country, and one of its most troubled, is destined to split in two. Within a few months of the results being announced, Southern Sudan will be the world's youngest nation. The deal to hold a referendum on secession was the key element of the comprehensive peace agreement that ended the 21-year civil war in 2005. The conflict caused about 2 million deaths, with 4 million people forced from their homes.
Many of the displaced people sought sanctuary to the north, and in particular the capital Khartoum, where they have since lived in shantytowns. As non-Arabs and non-Muslims they faced almost constant discrimination. "Life there was very hard," said Aman Deng, who fled Aweil with her family in 1988, when she was just 13. "The only work we could do was to clean the homes of Arabs, like slaves. Our houses could be knocked down by police at any time."
Aman arrived back in Aweil by bus on December 26 with her five children, and was directed to an empty patch of land on the outskirts of the town. She and several other women from her extended family unloaded their belongings and arranged them under a tree -- creating an open-air house, complete with beds, chairs and a cooking area.
The long-term challenges of starting life again will be huge. Southern Sudan is one of the world's least developed countries, with little infrastructure and lacking even the most basic of social services in most places. One in seven children who reach their first year die before the age of five, while only a quarter of girls attend primary school. But Aman and her relatives appeared content for now. The steady flow of buses since their arrival has turned the area into a bustling village. Some people have put up long dormitory-style buildings with sturdy stick frames and reed mats for walls.
It is a scene repeated across the various states of southern Sudan.
Since mid-December alone, more than 120,000 people have crossed down from the north, with thousands more arriving in towns each day. The 13 buses that arrived in Aweil on Friday evening were part of a larger convoy of 51 vehicles that brought 750 people to various sites, in a journey paid for by the government of southern Sudan. The timing of the arrivals might appear strange, given that southerners must vote where they registered to do so.
And since registration closed a month ago, none of the recent arrivals from the north will be able to cast ballots. But, while a few are grumbling and frustrated, most would not have voted anyway had they stayed in Khartoum, due to the fear that the government there would have manipulated their choice. While there are an estimated 1.5 to 2 million southerners still living in the north, only 116,860 people registered to vote there.
"We knew that if we voted in the north it would have been changed to make it look like we had chosen unity," said Aleu Deng Aleu, 32, who endured a harrowing four-day road trip to get here, with bandits repeatedly stopping his bus and demanding money. "So it was better for us not to vote at all." Aleu moved to Khartoum as a boy in 1983 and still has a job there in a foreign embassy. But he decided to bring his family back to live in Aweil because of the uncertainty of how southerners will be treated in the north after the vote.
President Omar al-Bashir, who is under severe pressure in the north, has already said he will tighten Islamic law there. Northern officials have also said that southerners will be treated as foreigners after secession -- a warning that undoubtedly swelled the exodus in recent weeks. "Maybe we could be forced to wear Muslim clothes, and pray in a mosque," said Aman, the woman under the tree. "So instead of suffering there we chose to come here, where there is peace and the government needs us."