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updated 1/11/2011 5:41:50 PM ET 2011-01-11T22:41:50

By Nile River barge and overcrowded bus, southern Sudanese who once fled their homeland's two-decade civil war are streaming back by the thousands every day as the region holds a vote to create a new country.

The trip is not without peril, though. Up to 10 southerners traveling in a vehicle convoy were killed in an attack by Arab tribesmen while crossing Sudan's contested middle, in the same region that international officials worry could pull the north and south back toward mass conflict.

For most returnees, the trip is safe — and joyous. Many southerners, who are black and either Christian or animist, say they face severe discrimination in Sudan's north, which is dominated by Arabs who are Muslim. The first returnees arrived in the fall to register and vote in this week's referendum. Others are now fleeing out of fear.

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"Khartoum is dangerous. Khartoum is no good. If you are black nobody helps you with a job," said Benet Alfred Zacharia, 27, referring to Sudan's northern capital.

Some southerners, though, say they have built a live for themselves in the north. Aldod Akon Deng, 65, voted earlier this week for unity instead of a separate country.

"I am here since 1964. My kids are all born in Khartoum. That's why I voted for unity," Deng said. "I've been raised here. My family grew up here. Even if there's separation, I'll stay here."

Still, the U.N. says 2,000 southerners have been returning each day since the beginning of the month, and that 150,000 have already arrived. Up to a half million are expected back by July, when Southern Sudan is expected to fully gain independence, according to the south's government. The U.N. thinks the number will reach 250,000 by March.

Juba's Nile River port has seen dozens of barges unload southern returnees since late October, when voter registration for the referendum began.

Small piles of home life dot the shore: cheap plastic chairs, large family-style cooking pots, and a puffy couch set. Kids wash dishes in the river near barges that are anchored to the grove's mango trees.

The returnees typically stay at the port for a couple days as the U.N. helps sort out their medical status and onward transportation. Families sleep out under the stars in a wooded area where kids climb mango trees to shake the fruit loose. Plastic water bottles litter the ground.

Despite the conditions, most returnees seem content.

"I have not seen my relatives since I left. I'm so happy to see them," said Mary Paul, 37, who migrated to Khartoum in 1987.

For Paul, who lived with her five children in a tin roof shack in a settlement of southerners in Khartoum's outskirts, life turned even more difficult after her husband died in 2007. Her main income came from brewing marissa, an alcohol made from sorghum and dates. But the profession landed her in jail four times in recent years because alcohol is forbidden for Muslims.

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Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said last month he would more deeply entrench strict Islamic Sharia law in the northern half of his country if the south secedes, a situation that could prove problematic to Christian southerners.

Southerners living in the north fear the consequences of the vote based on "very hostile rhetoric" coming from the north, said Jehanne Henry, Human Rights Watch's top researcher in Sudan.

"So it's understandable that that environment of uncertainty about their fate combined with the sense of excitement about the southern secession would draw them to the south," said Henry. "Southerners in the north have always been second class citizens ... for example arrests based on clothing, arrests of people who brew alcohol."

The barge trips from Khartoum to Juba can take two to three weeks and cost about $25, though the government is also providing free tickets. The trip by land, though, can be deadly.

Arab tribesmen attacked a vehicle convoy carrying southerners traveling from the north, killing between two and 10 people, the south's Minister of Internal Affairs Maj. Gen. Gier Chuang Aluong said Tuesday.

A leader of the Misseriya tribe that was blamed for the violence denied there was an attack.

But Aluong said he had been told by the governor of Northern Bahr El Ghazal — a southern state — that 10 people were killed and 18 wounded in the Monday attack. The governor of Southern Kordofan — a northern state — said that two were killed and 10 wounded. The discrepancy could not immediately be explained.

Southern Sudan's weeklong independence referendum began Sunday and is likely to split Sudan in two along its Arab-African faultline. The vote was part of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of north-south civil war that killed 2 million people. Besides the attack on the returnees, several skirmishes have been reported since Friday, and it's possible around 40 people have died, though the death tolls have often been disputed.

If southerners vote for independence, issues like north-south oil rights, water rights to the White Nile, border demarcation and the status of Abyei remain to be worked out. Most of Sudan's oil is in the south, while the pipelines to the sea run through the north, tying the two regions together economically.

Justin Dwoki, who works for the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration, said most of the returnees were scared in the north, and are happy to be back despite their simple initial living conditions.

"They're just happy. They're reached their land," he said.

Felix Vincensio spent 12 days on a river barge with his wife and child. The 31-year-old had been in Khartoum for about a decade, but said he was tired of being treated as a second class citizen, even by taxi drivers.

"When they see a black man they say five pounds ($1.66). If they see an Arab they say 2 pounds ($0.66)," Vincensio said

The United Nations on Tuesday, meanwhile, said the U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Sudan flew Ahmed Haroun, the governor of Southern Kordofan — who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur — to a meeting in Abyei.

"There have been clashes in Abyei, and these clashes were actually threatening to escalate into a wider war and so Governor Haroun was critical to bringing the Misseriya leaders in Southern Kordofan to a peace meeting in Abyei to stop further clashes and killings," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

___

Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Khartoum, Sudan, and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Sudan: A vote on secession

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  1. A South Sudanese woman and her child arrive at a polling station during the referendum on the independence of South Sudan, in Juba, southern Sudan, on January 13. With a continued large turnout of voters in South Sudan, the United Nations said results for the self-determination balloting are expected in early February, provided there are no appeals. But the final result would be declared on February 7 or 14 according to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission‘s timeline, said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky at UN headquarters in New York. The commission reported voters‘ turnout at 46 per cent since the seven-day voting began on January 9 to decide whether Southern Sudanese want to be independent or to remain under the government in Khartoum. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A poll observer keeps track of the amount of voters on a tally sheet at a polling station in Juba on January 13. (Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. An aerial view of part of the town of Yambio, south Sudan. Yambio, a poor and isolated town near the borders of Central African Republic and the Congo, has had a history of conflict due to the presence of the shadowy paramilitary group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) which has terrorized much of the population along the border regions of the three countries. South Sudan, one of the world's poorest regions, is participating in an independence referendum following a historic 2005 peace treaty that brought to an end decades of civil war between the Arab north and predominantly Christian and animist south. The south is expected to vote around 99 percent to secede from the north which will also give it a majority of Sudan's oil. The result is expected to split Africa s largest country in two. Over two million people were killed in the north-south civil war which began in the 1950`s. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A child heads back to his home while carrying wood on his head in the town of Yambio, south Sudan, on January 13. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. View of new buildings under construction in Juba on January 13. Juba is preparing to become a capital city. (Phil Moore / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebecca Kadi receives assistance to cast her ballot in southern Sudan's independence referendum in Juba, Sudan, on Wednesday, Jan.12. About four million Southern Sudanese voters began casting their ballots Sunday in a week-long referendum on independence that is expected to split Africa's largest nation in two. (Pete Muller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A boy walks down a road while collecting recycling in Juba, Sudan, on Wednesday. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cattle walk in a ring at a market in Juba, Sudan, on Wednesday. The result of the referendum is expected to split Africa's largest country in two. Over two million people were killed in the north-south civil war which began in the 1950's. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. South Sudanese policemen wait to cast their votes during the referendum on the independence of South Sudan at a polling station in Juba, southern Sudan, on Wednesday. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A Southern Sudanese woman casts her vote at a ballot box at a polling center during the third day of the referendum in Khartoum, Sudan on Tuesday, January 11. Arab tribesman attacked a vehicle convoy carrying southern Sudanese traveling from the country's north to their home region, which is holding an independence referendum this week, an official said Tuesday. Conflicting reports put the death toll between two and 10. (Abd Raouf / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Rosalynn Carter, wife of former US President Jimmy Carter, speaks with South Sudanese women at a polling station in Juba on Tuesday. For the vote to be valid, a 60 per cent of those registered have to vote. According to the referendum commission's timetable, preliminary results will be announced on February 1 and the final results are expected by February 14. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A policeman searches a queue of voters at a polling station as the referendum continues in Juba on Tuesday. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A pedestrian walks on an unpaved road in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan on Tuesday. Currently less than 100 km of paved roads exist in Southern Sudan. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Sudanese people carry their belongings in the Nile river in Juba on Monday.Juba inhabitants rely on the White Nile waters to bathe, wash their belongings, and themselves, transport things and for fishing. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A mother and her daughter walk to a polling station during the second day of voting for the independence referendum Jan. 10 in Juba, Sudan. Southern Sudan is participating in the referendum following a historic 2005 peace treaty that brought an end to decades of civil war between the Arab north and predominantly Christian and animist south. The south is expected to vote to secede from the north, which will also give it a majority of Sudan's oil and split Africa's largest country in two. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A policeman from the southern Sudanese police service shows his inked index finger after voting at a polling center in Juba on Jan.10. (Phil Moore / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A staff member leaves a polling center to take break during the second day of the referendum in the suburb of Mandela, on the outskirts of the capital Khartoum, Sudan on Jan. 10. (Nasser Nasser / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Electoral workers check voting registration cards of voters during the referendum in Juba, southern Sudan on Jan. 10. (Khaled El Fiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A mother and daughter register at a polling station in Juba, Sudan on Jan. 10. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. South Sudanese people wait to cast their votes during the referendum at a polling station in Juba, southern Sudan, on Jan. 10. (Khaled El Fiqi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A poster of Salva Kiir Mayardit, acting President of the Government of Southern Sudan, is viewed in Juba, Sudan on Jan. 10. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A south Sudanese woman waits in a line to cast her ballot in the referendum in the rural village of Peiti, northwest of Juba, south Sudan on Jan. 10. (Thomas Mukoya / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Southern Sudanese line up to vote at dawn in the southern capital of Juba on Jan. 9. (Pete Muller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Southern Sudanese women wave a Southern Sudan flag as they wait to cast their vote for the referendum on the independence of South Sudan at a polling station in Juba, Southern Sudan, Jan 9. Southern Sudanese went to the polls in a historic referendum that is widely expected to see them vote to split from the north. The week-long vote is the centerpiece of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian and Animist south - a conflict which claimed the lives of more than 2 million southerners and displaced 4 million more. (Mohamed Messara / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Southern Sudanese women wait outside a heavily-guarded polling station in Juba to vote on Jan. 9. (Phil Moore / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, or SPLA, check for their names on a voters' registration list before casting their vote at their base in Juba, Southern Sudan, Jan. 9. (Jerome Delay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. South Sudanese men hold voting registration cards as they wait in the line to vote at a polling station during the referendum in Juba, south Sudan, Jan. 9. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A group of south Sudanese people, who just arrived from Kampala, Uganda, in the bordertown of Nimule on Jan. 9, celebrate the start of a referendum in Sudan expected to lead to the partition of Africa's largest nation and the creation of the world's 193rd UN member state. (Marc Hofer / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. South Sudanese living in Kenya, push to get in a polling station in Nairobi to vote on Jan. 9. (Simon Maina / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A southern Sudanese prisoner votes inside Khartoum's Kober jail on Jan. 9.. A special voting room was set up inside the jail to make it possible for southern prisoners to participate in the landmark independence referendum. (Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. A southern Sudanese voter shows his inked thumb after marking his ballot on Jan. 9. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Southern Sudanese women dance outside a polling station in Cairo on Jan. 9. (Mohammed Abed / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A southern Sudanese man prepares a voting station before the independence referendum vote tomorrow in the southern Sudanese city of Juba, Jan. 8. South Sudan is preparing for an independence referendum to take place Sunday following a historic 2005 peace treaty that ended decades of civil war between the Arab north and predominantly Christian and animist south. The south is expected to vote around 99 percent to secede from the north, which will also give it a majority of Sudan's oil. The result is expected to split Africa's largest country in two. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Southern Sudanese participate in a day of prayer at a church before the independence referendum vote tomorrow in Juba, Sudan, on Jan. 8. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center, is one of the international observers of the upcoming South Sudan referendum. He's pictured here in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 8. (Philip Dhil / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. A southern Sudanese general marchandise shop hangs a pro-secession poster on its entrance door in Juba, Sudan, on Jan. 7. (Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A mother washes her daughter in a camp for internally displaced Sudanese from Khartoum at a port in the southern Sudanese city of Juba on Jan. 7. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Rebecca Agau Deng, a student at the University of Juba, asks a question during a public lecture by Thabo Mbeki, former South African president and chairman of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel, at the Nyakaron Cultural Center in Juba, on Jan. 7. (Tim Mckulka Unmis Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Southern Sudanese march in a pro-separation rally in the southern capital of Juba on Jan. 7. Over two million people were killed in the north-south civil war, which began in the 1950s. (Pete Muller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. U.S. Sen. John Kerry speaks to the UNAMID (United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur) staff and peacekeepers during a Jan. 7 visit to the mission's team site in Shangil Tobaya in north Darfur. Shangil Tobaya houses internally displaced persons camps where thousands of people have fled to after fighting between Sudan's army and Darfur rebels. (Ho / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Voting materials are delivered by a U.N. helicopter to an area in Tali, southern Sudan, that is inaccessible by road, Jan. 2. (Tim Mckulka / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A southern Sudanese man, wearing a T-shirt reading "Vote For Your Freedom," holds up a cross during a Christmas Eve procession in Juba on Dec. 24. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Southern Sudanese citizens chant slogans and hold placards as they march in support of the independence referendum, in Juba on Dec. 9. (Str / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Sudanese look at an example of ballot slips at the southern Sudan referendum commission offices in Khartoum on Nov. 14. (Ashraf Shazly / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A southern Sudanese woman receives her voter registration card in the southern town of Melut on Nov. 15. (Pete Muller / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Southern Sudanese children wash their faces next to their family belongings as they wait for transportion upon their arrival to Juba from Khartoum on Jan. 6. The U.N. has appealed for more than $32 million in emergency funds to support thousands of southern Sudanese returning home ahead of the referendum on south Sudan's independence. (Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. South Sudan returnees arrive at the main port of Juba after 17 days on a boat from Khartoum, Dec. 17. (Str / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. A group of internally displaced people sit inside a bus in a transport convoy bound for Unity state in south Sudan, in Khartoum on Oct. 28. Sudan's north-south civil war, which was Africa's longest civil war, pitted Khartoum's Islamist government against rebels who mostly followed Christianity and traditional beliefs, and culminated in a 2005 north-south peace deal. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. A woman waves to a bus packed with south Sudanese people who used to live in eastern Khartoum, as the passengers return to the south of the country, in Khartoum on Oct. 28. (Philip Dhil / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. Internally displaced Sudanese from the south sit next to their packed belongings in Khartoum on Oct. 27. (Ashraf Shazly / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. A doctor examines Sudanese children, on Dec. 6 at the Kalma camp for internally displaced persons in Nyala, south Darfur. (Albert Gonzalez Farran / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. Southern Sudanese women from the Abu Shouq internally displaced people's camp attend classes at a center for adult education, near El Fasher, north of Darfur, on Dec. 13. (Albert Gonzalez Farran / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. Sudanese teacher Abdullah Abdel Rahim gives a lesson to students at a school in Abu Shouk refugee camp, north of the Darfur town of Al-Fasher, Sudan, on April 20, 2007. (Nasser Nasser / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. A Sudanese refugee woman is reflected in a shattered mirror at a private home where they and others are temporarily being housed after crossing into Israel from Egypt, at Kadesh Barnea, in southern Israel near the international border with Egypt, on Aug. 20, 2007. (Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Displaced Sudanese women line up to receive food at Kasab internally displaced people's camp near Kutum, northern Darfur, Sudan, in this July 2004 picture. (Marcus Prior / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. A Sudanese woman carries a 150-pound bag of sorghum on Jan. 22, 2004, as she and other villagers gather up U.N. World Food Program aid dropped from the air. (Edward Parsons / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. A Sudanese boy, covered in flies, cries in the Koumouangou refugee camp in Chad near the Sudan border, July 6, 2004. (Karel Prinsloo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. A man walks past a destroyed homestead in the village of Kafod, north Darfur, Sudan, on July 2, 2008. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir Al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region. (Stuart Price / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. Sudanese Darfur survivor Ibrahim holds human skulls at the site of a mass grave on the outskirts of the west Darfur town of Mukjar, Sudan, on April 23, 2007. (Nasser Nasser / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Rebel soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army cheer after a morning run in Nyal in southern Sudan, Nov. 20, 2003. Two months earlier, the Sudanese government agreed to allow the rebel army to retain its force in the south for a six-year transitional period as part of a U.S.-backed peace initiative. (John Moore / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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