It is not often the world welcomes a brand-new nation into its fold. But that will be the case on Saturday, when South Sudan becomes the United Nations' 193rd member and the African Union's 54th.
Independence comes after a bitter and long-fought conflict against Sudan's north, which left the south marginalized, underdeveloped and facing huge challenges — and the specter of more fighting.
But in Juba, the new capital, South Sudan is preparing to celebrate.
Ahead of Saturday's independence festivities, traditional dancers, the national choir and South Sudan's military and other uniformed groups gathered together for a full dress rehearsal and flag-raising ceremony this week in the sweltering heat.
The practice run and the event itself are being held at the Dr. John Garang Mausoleum in Juba. Hailed as a national hero, the late Garang was the leader of Africa's longest civil war between mainly Arabic and Muslim northern Sudan and the largely black African and Christian south. The 20-year war ended in a 2005 peace deal that the U.S. helped broker.
Veteran southern Sudanese soldiers were among those proudly marching in the parade, like John Ngum Lang Ngum, who fought the first civil war in the bush and calls himself a freedom fighter.
"You know, I feel now happy, because we are finally liberated from the Arab rule. Myself, I am one of the founders. I'm one of the people who started the war," he says. "But I'm happy that the flag has been hoisted today while I'm alive. And I'm seeing our flag of freedom waving in the air."
Schoolchildren were singing at the parade ground in a mood of excitement and expectation, despite the monumental hurdles an independent, oil-rich South Sudan still confronts.
It needs to build roads, railways, airports, homes, hospitals, schools and other major infrastructure; tap the new nation's agricultural and oil wealth; and maintain neighborly and peaceful relations with the northern half of the country after the formal divorce that came with an overwhelming "yes" vote in January's referendum for independence in the south.
"You can see we are sitting at the heart of this continent. This is the real heart, because it is the real area where the virgin resources of this continent are located. They have not been exploited. So, it needs peace," says Barnaba Marial Benjamin, South Sudan's information minister.
Benjamin says that after years of conflict, relations with northern Sudan must be cordial.
"Destabilizing each other is not in the interests of the two nations. That's why we believe having a viable state in the north and a viable state in the south, living side by side, cooperating in trade in business, discussing issues that may bring conflict is the best way forward," he says.
After blowing hot and cold about South Sudan's independence, the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, has announced he will attend the ceremony in Juba on Saturday.
Most of Sudan's oil reserves are in the south, but the crude is exported via pipelines in the north. The two independent states must come to a wealth-sharing agreement and iron out other unresolved issues.
Meanwhile, there has been renewed fighting in recent weeks in the disputed oil-producing region of Abyei, which lies between the north-south border, and whose future as part of either the independent north or south has yet to be decided. Northern forces have pledged to pull out of Abyei and both sides have agreed to allow peacekeepers from neighboring Ethiopia to be deployed to Abyei to create a buffer zone.
There are also continuing deadly clashes in South Kordofan, northern Sudan's last remaining oil state. Although located in the north, Kordofan remains home to members of the Nuba community, who fought with the south during the civil war. The Nuba say independence in South Sudan will leave them isolated, persecuted and targeted by Sudanese government forces. Human-rights campaigners warn ethnic cleansing is being perpetrated in the Nuba Mountains.
Closer to home in the south, the Sudan People's Liberation Army is facing armed opposition from disenchanted militia groups that split from the once revolutionary movement that fought for and won southern liberation.
A Return Home, To A New Nation
Tens of thousands of southern Sudanese who have lived in exile in neighboring countries and overseas, or who were refugees in camps in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, and elsewhere, are returning to celebrate their hard-won independence — and to settle in their own newborn nation.
Hopes are high, says Agyedho Adwok Nyaba, sitting in an outdoor cafe. The tall, smiling and thoughtful 25-year-old development worker, who has spent almost her entire life outside South Sudan — first as a child refugee, then as a student — came back last November.
"When you are away from home — in this case, you know, I didn't know what home was," Nyaba says. "For me, if you ask me today what is home, I say home is where my heart is. There is something special about where you come from. So, for me, coming back home, it was just a pulling."
Across town at St. Theresa's Roman Catholic cathedral, children recite a prayer-poem for South Sudan: "Loving God, give us courage to reject resentment as well as ethnic conflicts. ... Help us to overcome hurt, hostility and bitterness in our hearts, so that we become reconciled citizens in our new nation ... in the spirit of service, unity and lasting peace.
"God bless the Republic of South Sudan. God bless the Republic of Sudan."
The prayer stresses that north and south Sudan should be partners, but there seems to be little trepidation in South Sudan about a future without the north, and simply relief that the time has come for the south to break away and savor independence. Southerners say they were second-class citizens in a united Sudan and are now desperate for freedom and lasting peace.