On July 9th, 2011, the swamps and plains of southern Sudan will become the world’s 193rd country. For decades across this vast and largely vacant landscape, unspeakable violence and devastation prevailed. More than two million people perished as southern rebels waged a 23-year rebellion against the northern government, aimed at empowering the resource-rich but deeply marginalized south. In 2005, the war came to an ostensible end with an agreement that allowed for the prospect of southern independence in 2011, the same year in which the ceasefire is set to expire.

When I arrived in southern Sudan in 2009, I did so with only a general understanding of the dynamics at play. In the almost two years since then, I have been humbled, deeply and repeatedly, by the complexity of the southern struggle and the respective identities of those who waged it. The land is vast and boasts astounding topographic, cultural and political diversity. On the basis of environment, its numerous tribes and sub-tribes have developed distinct identities that, while of continual personal intrigue, give me pause in my assessment of the future here.

For the time being, the social glue of liberation ideology creates a bond of identity between southerners. From arid pastoral plains to lush agrarian fields, across scores of languages and varied cultures, the yearning for independence is profound. The struggle for freedom and the sacrifices made to attain it define the existing national identity of the new South. I fear, however, that when the common denominator of northern repression becomes a thing of the past, that a new form of factionalized identity politics could prevail and that a new era of internal conflict and suffering might soon begin. I hope I am wrong.

I am humbled by and grateful for the opportunity to document this critical and complex period of South Sudan’s history. My experiences in this vast and diverse land have taught me more about the enduring challenges of nation states than any amount of academic study ever could. I hope, above all things, that the proud and determined people of this newborn Republic can find peaceful solutions to the inevitable challenges ahead. Of all the world’s people, they deserve a break.

Pete Muller is a photographer based in Juba, Sudan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Paris Match and TIME.com, among others.

Muller previously wrote for LightBox about the Pastoralist Tribes of Southern Sudan.

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