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Upcoming referendum prompts Sudan exodus

They carry all they own from desert slums and stack it near big trucks. They're packing to go home to southern Sudan, even those who have never been but have heard stories of tribal chiefs and cattle herds roaming the grasslands.

"Our children were born in north Sudan, but their hearts are southern," said Francis Jackson, a slender tribesman holding a folder crammed with the names of those preparing to leave. "The south is much better. We have no freedom here."

The 1.5 million southerners living in the north are a legacy of decades of civil war that ended in 2005 with a peace treaty that promised the south a vote on independence. The semiautonomous south is dominated by Christians and animists while the mostly Muslim north is the base of the national government led by President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir.

Many southerners who fled the war-torn region never felt welcome in the north, but they stayed rather than return to an unpredictable land of burned villages and mass graves. That is changing in an exodus ahead of a Jan. 9 independence referendum expected to split the country and give rise to a new nation on the precarious map of East Africa.

Fears persist that if voters choose secession, the north will seek retribution against the south.

A senior member of al-Bashir's ruling National Congress Party warned that southerners who remained in the north would be stripped of citizenship and denied health care. The question remains whether al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity in western Sudan's Darfur region, will allow the south to secede peacefully. The U.N. estimates that at least 50,000 people have left the north to return home to vote. The southern population is estimated as high as 9.7 million, out of a nationwide total of about 41 million.