RUMBEK, Sudan — Nailed to a huge shade tree on the edge of a dusty square is a paper help-wanted sign that seeks judges. The surrounding city is cratered with trenches and strewn with the litter of war, but its residents imagine a future with grand, new skyscrapers sprouting from the earth.
Last month, the Arab-dominated central government and southern rebels signed an agreement to end a 21-year civil war that killed an estimated 2 million people. Rumbek, with a handful of low-rise stone buildings left from colonial times, has been designated the capital of southern Sudan. In six years, after a referendum, the region could become an independent country.
But as the help-wanted sign suggests, southern Sudan is desperately short of just about everything it takes to make a country -- not only laws and judges, but paved roads, teachers, doctors, schools, hospitals, water and electricity.
Africa's largest country in area, Sudan is a strife-torn product of colonial rule. Sudanese have been fighting each other in one form or another for all but 11 years since 1955, a year before independence from British-Egyptian control. With the signing of the peace agreement, they suddenly face new questions.
Can the country stay glued together by choice? If southerners opt for independence instead, can rebel leaders transform themselves into a government? And can they possibly satisfy the expectations of their people?
Southern Sudan has one of the world's lowest life expectancies at 42 years. It has the lowest rate of primary school completion and the highest proportion of children under age 5 suffering from wasting disease or malnutrition. Ninety percent of its people earn less than $1 a day.
There is almost no infrastructure in the region, where about 7.5 million of Sudan's 39 million people live. Red dirt roads undulate through deep holes, and the few cars bouncing over them are four-wheel-drives belonging to humanitarian agencies and a handful of rebels turned government officials.
After years of civil war, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the political wing of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, is the south's main political force.
Southerners have long chafed at what they regard as neglect and discrimination by the central government in Khartoum. Shortly after the civil war began, the government imposed Islamic law, or Sharia, across the country, which became a focal point for the anger of southerners, who are primarily animists or Christians.
Resentment against the central government is so deep in the south, many people believe that only overwhelming incompetence by their new administration would push southerners to vote for unity in six years.
If the south does vote for independence, some fear it will spark more instability and discontent in other parts of Sudan. As the north-south peace deal inched toward completion, rebels in Darfur, in western Sudan, rose up two years ago, complaining of discrimination and lack of services.
Reprisals by government-backed Arab militias, known to rebel supporters as the janjaweed, sparked one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters last year.
Many southerners worry that Khartoum will never let them break free. But amid the deprivation, people are optimistic -- so much that some say their expectations are dangerously inflated.
On the outskirts of Rumbek, local people in their round turkuls, or huts of mud and stick, are watching heavy equipment roll out a wide, flat road of red dirt.
To many, the road being built by the World Food Program crystallizes their expectations of new hospitals, schools, social services and running water.
"I think these things will be done in three months," said Mary Acholl, 27, a mother of three who lives beside the new road. "We don't expect any delay. As you can see now, this road is already in place, and the peace deal was only signed the other day.
"The most important thing is water. The reason we are all dirty is not because we want to be. It's because there's not enough water."
Others have grander visions.
"In a few years' time, we expect to see skyscrapers here," said Gum Baak, who was making the long walk home along the new road, wearing a wool hat in the sweltering sun. He was born sometime in the mid-1940s. "In a few years' time we expect to see our children driving on these roads, not just foreigners."
Under the peace deal, southern Sudan will get half of the country's oil revenue, estimated to be as much as $50 million a month. But Peter Mutua, UNICEF resident project officer in Rumbek, said the money would probably not be enough to build the required infrastructure, certainly not at the rate the populace expected.
"If people get disenchanted, we'll slip back into instability and that would undermine the [peace] process," he said. "These [next] six months are very crucial because they set the tone for the six years."