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Newly Born, South Sudan's First Steps Are Next

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: The world witnessed the birth of a new nation this weekend. South Sudan celebrated its first day of independence yesterday after years of civil war with the northern part of the country.

The conflict ended in a peace deal six years ago, which the U.S. helped broker. From the capital, Juba, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports on the birth pangs of newborn South Sudan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: The jolly team of nurses on night duty at the maternity wing at Juba Teaching Hospital cheers loudly and ululates, you know, that distinct hammering of the tongue against the side of the mouth. The midwives repeated the ritual every time they delivered one of the three baby boys born just after South Sudan became a brand new independent nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

QUIST-ARCTON: This little boy you hear crying had only just been born. But the number one baby has already got his name.

Ms. JOSEPHINE SPINA: Independence.

QUIST-ARCTON: Independence was immediately nicknamed Inde on the ward. His mother, 24-year-old Josephine Spina(ph), was too weary to say much after the delivery of her baby, except that she wants Independence to be well educated and to live up to his name.

She smiles and protectively curled her arm around her newborn and left it to the articulate nursing sister, Grace Nemere(ph) to share her thoughts.

GRACE NIMIR: I'm very excited of this day of the born of a baby in a new country called Independence.

QUIST-ARCTON: Sister Nimir notes that despite its oil and other mineral wealth, South Sudan has one of the world's highest infant mortality rates.

NIMIR: We have many challenges, but I'm sure these challenges we will solve as a new country. We can do health education for the mothers. We can tell them this deliver at home, it is not good. Come to the hospital to deliver in the health services.

QUIST-ARCTON: Health care is one of the priorities facing the new government, as tens of thousands of Southern Sudanese flood back home from exile and refugee camps abroad. There are many other mighty hurdles to tackle, such as possible internal feuding within South Sudan and the wider conflict with the North in the disputed oil-rich border region.

Princeton Lyman is the U.S. special envoy for Sudan.

PRINCETON LYMAN: So this is a very challenging atmosphere for a new state to be born in. There's an enormous amount of mistrust, bitter memories, antagonisms. Managing those, having statesmen who rise above that to make sure those don't spill over into armed conflict, that's going to be the challenge.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ambassador Lyman was part of the high-level U.S. delegation at South Sudan's independence ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNOUNCEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Southern Sudan, oh yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Oh yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Freedom. Oh yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Oh yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our guests, oh yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Oh yeah.

QUIST-ARCTON: It was the legislative assembly speaker who formally proclaimed southern independence. Among the crowds who gathered at the Memorial Park to witness the declaration was the nightshift midwife, Sister Nimir, with a contingent of pink-coated nurses who proudly sang the new national anthem.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) So Lord bless South Sudan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

QUIST-ARCTON: She waved South Sudan's new flag and was overcome with emotion. On independence night, Sister Nimir expressed this hope for the newborn in her care.

NIMIR: For me, this baby, I wish to be a president in this country.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Juba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.