March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Celebrating South Sudan’s independence in Lansing

Monday, July 11 — Grand Rapids resident and Sudan native Racheal Akoi was in Lansing this weekend to bask in the glory of her home country’s independence.

“We celebrate today for our independence. We have been suffering for a long time and we appreciate our freedom — it’s finally here," she said.

More than 300 people gathered for the South Sudan Celebration of Independence on Saturday at the Lansing Center to honor the declaration of a new country, said Abraham Majak, a lead organizer for the event and president of the advocacy group Rescue Southern Sudan Village People.

Grateful for the day of independence, Majak remembers the years of unrest in the African state where he and his older brother made the more than 1,000-mile march to Ethiopia — and then to Kenya — to reside in the refugee camp Kakuma as one of the many orphaned children that had lost their parents and relatives to war.

In 2001, Majak and many other children were transported out of the war-torn areas to host families around the world. Majak was sent to Holt at 14 years old to begin his new life.

“This, what happened today, July 9, is for the 2 million people that died,” he said. “(For) the 12.5 million that have been displaced, and those people that lost their lives during the Civil War and now, they did not die in vain.”

The celebration started at 3 p.m. and went on until midnight in Lansing. But around the world, the celebration started at midnight as people paraded in the streets of Juba, the capital city of the new Republic of South Sudan.

Saturday’s program opened with prayers, speeches, songs and an original poem, called “Change Has Come,” read by Haba Luga-Simon, a Lansing resident born in the U.S. who has never been able to visit her native country.

“Sudan has made peace,” she said. “There is no more war and we can go back.”

The south’s independence was long-awaited after more than 40 years of unrest with the north. After the First Sudanese Civil War in 1955, South Sudan gained independence from the British and Egyptian political territories and became part of the republic in 1956. The first war did not end until 1972. The victory was short lived, as South Sudan was involved in the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1983 that did not officially end until January 2005 with the establishment of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

While many were grateful for the independence of South Sudan, much progress still needs to occur for the country to be successful, said event volunteer Dakbai A. Dakbai.

“My people now can do whatever is good for (them). Even though we are free, we have a long ways to go,” he said. “We’re going to change hearts and minds …it’s hard to believe at times that change will come, but you have that feeling.”

Thinking about the new possibilities and opportunities that South Sudan will be able to take advantage of, Majak is planning for the future.

“Now, we have our independence, the next question would be what are we (going to do) for tomorrow,” he said. “Our focus right now is developing our new country, provide education, clean water for the people, agriculture and then provide other services for people in South Sudan.”