NIMULE, Sudan — Until a few years ago, the main road that connects Southern Sudan to the outside world was in as poor shape as the region itself. Rebels fought inch for inch over control of the dirt road, the front line in a brutal war. Land mines rigged its path, and crater-like holes scarred its face. Few dared to tread it.
Mired in Africa's longest-running conflict, the region was cut off from the rest of the world. Other than combatants, about the only traffic the road saw was refugees fleeing the region southward on foot.
Today, six years after a U.S.-brokered peace deal, the road — which links Juba, the region's capital, with Uganda to the south — bustles with new life, and the current has reversed, now flowing northward.
The road has become a lifeline for a rising war-torn nation, a symbol of the region's future orientation toward the African south and away from the Arab north and, for some, the passageway to a new life.
At 2:30 one recent morning in a downtown bus parking lot in Kampala, Uganda, dozens of drowsy East Africans piled into a red 44-seat bus. An eclectic mix of drivers, college graduates, traders and hired hands, they were leaving their homes behind, heading north to Juba, drawn by the promise of jobs and fast cash.
"People are looking for opportunities," said passenger Paul Acellam, a Ugandan accountant who's worked in Juba since 2007.
Crossing into Southern Sudan after dawn, the bus whizzed smoothly over the same road that once saw raging battles, now passing construction crews and de-mining camps.
Asphalting begins next month, and soon this will be a new nation's first highway.
It's a gift from a key well-wisher: "From the American people" dots signs along the road, the universal branding of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is financing the $200 million project.
Southern Sudan is set to emerge as the world's newest independent nation in July, after a referendum earlier this month that, according to initial results, shows a 99 percent choice for seceding from the rest of Sudan.
The U.S., which has put considerable effort into assuring a smooth transition, is working to help bolster the oil-rich infant country, which it expects to emerge as a future ally nestled within a troubled pocket of the world.
Southern Sudan needs plenty of help. As a result of war and a "closed door" colonial policy, which left it nearly totally undeveloped, the 20th century seems to have skipped the region entirely, other than the wide distribution of Soviet-era firearms. There are no land-line telephones, no postal service, no business chains and no high-rise buildings.
Even worse, there are almost no roads. A region roughly the size of France, with a five-month rainy season that turns its silty soil into impassable mush, Southern Sudan lacks a single paved road leading outside any town or city. Many areas are inaccessible by ground for half the year.
During the war, age-old trade routes ceased.
"When we came in, all the roads were overgrown," said Jacob Marial Maker, undersecretary at the southern government's Ministry of Roads and Transportation.
After the 2005 peace deal, Juba, a government-controlled garrison town during the war, swiftly became the capital of the formerly rebel southern administration.
Progress moved in, slowly at first. Buildings cropped up, and traders opened shop as foreign aid money and petrodollars flooded in.
The road to Uganda and the outside world, battered as it was, roared back to life.
With no industry or internal trade, Southern Sudan didn't have the means to feed Juba's expanding appetite. Looking north for goods was no help. Khartoum, Sudan's northern capital, is more than 700 miles away across an impenetrable stretch of swamp, the Sudd, one of the world's largest inland wetlands. The roads around it are seasonal and poor, and much too long.
Its quickest route to the sea lay southward, to Mombasa, Kenya's Indian Ocean port. The easiest way there was through Uganda, Kenya's neighbor to the west.
So, jolting and crawling, trucks laden with fruits, vegetables, cement, air-conditioning units — basically, anything anyone in Southern Sudan needed — forged northward.
The 119-mile stretch from the border town of Nimule to Juba took up to eight hours for most vehicles, but they came anyway.
According to a border study by the Ugandan government, the country exported nearly $1 billion worth of goods into Southern Sudan in 2008, making it far and away Uganda's top export destination.
Traders prospered, thanks to steep profit margins, and Juba became one of the most expensive cities on the continent.
So when the U.S. government asked the Southern Sudanese authorities near the end of the George W. Bush administration how it could best help, they pointed to this road, which needed de-mining, widening, grading and paving. The U.S. agreed.
"We needed a big signature project, and it made sense," said William Hammink, the director of the USAID's Sudan mission.
The U.S. involvement stems in part from unusual circumstances. As part of Sudan, the southern region was disqualified by the World Bank and other global financial institutions that usually fund big infrastructure projects, because of Sudan's nearly $40 billion external debt.
For the U.S., the road has been unexpectedly costly: The $200 million price tag, which includes eight bridges that had to be replaced along the way, constitutes roughly one-fourth of the USAID mission's entire budget for Southern Sudan over the past three years.
Contracted out to Louis Berger Group, the project was expected to cost only $87 million and to be completed by March 2010, according to a September 2009 internal audit available on the USAID's website.
But the company had to reopen the bidding after the subcontractor who'd been hired to build two-thirds of the road failed to begin the work. That delayed the project nine months. De-mining also took much longer than expected.
For all its investment, the U.S. has done more than build a highway, or a lifeline. As a new global border is about to be drawn, the road is a bridge between worlds that had been closed off to each other.
More than goods flows north. Like the opening of a valve at a long-blocked dam, tens of thousands of Ugandans and Kenyans have flooded Southern Sudan, filling the deficit of skilled labor caused by the years of war and isolation.
"You work nonstop, and the money is good," said Arthur Omondi, a 27-year-old Kenyan electrician who'd spent only two months in Juba but now planned on staying there three more years. "In four days, you can make what takes a month back home."
Meanwhile, the old world with links to the Arab north is fading slowly as the African continent prepares for the regional political shift.
Thirteen hours after its departure, Omondi's Juba-bound bus neared its destination. Cell phones chirped to life as the weary travelers began to stir. The cabin resonated with English and Swahili, not Arabic.
The bus passed an abandoned battle tank, its rusted corpse quickly fading into the dust trail behind, but most of the passengers didn't even notice.
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting from Sudan is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)
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