Portland resident James Otto lost five of his seven brothers in the war against North Sudan.

He still sends money to South Sudan every month to help his remaining family survive in a region where, until now, there’s been little hope for prosperity and peace.

So on Saturday, as South Sudan declared independence from North Sudan and became the world’s newest country, Otto expressed “great relief” that his family’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain.

“They died for this cause,” said Otto, 40, who joined a few thousand others Saturday at the Portland Expo to celebrate South Sudan’s new independence. “We finally are seeing the fruit of their work. Today is truly a day to celebrate.”

After decades of war, the Christian-dominated South Sudan separated from the Muslim-dominated North Sudan this weekend, becoming the 54th African country.

Portland’s South Sudanese community — which is one of the largest in the United States — commemorated the occasion by throwing a daylong celebration, which began with a march in Monument Square and ended with 12 hours of festivities at the Expo.

The day provided a rare mix of grief and jubilation. At the Monument Square march, many of the Sudanese in attendance cried and tightly held their loved ones, remembering the family members and friends lost in the civil war. Others joyously waved the South Sudan flag, its golden Star of Bethlehem shining in the morning sunlight.

At the expo, much of the grief turned to celebration. People packed the bleachers around the basketball court, listening to traditional music, watching basketball and dancing to Sudanese drums.

Some of the men wore pin-striped suits, tuxedos and flag pins, and women donned the most colorful of dresses. Many people ate malakwang, a dish of leafy greens, sweet potatoes and peanut sauces reserved for only the happiest of occasions, Otto said.

People from all backgrounds attended, including non-Sudanese. Hamza Haadoow, a Somali immigrant and candidate for mayor of Portland, called it a “big, big day.”

“It’s nice to share the celebration and welcome them to the world,” Haadoow said. “The birth of a nation is an exciting time.”

Rachel Deakin, 26, said she attended to show support to the South Sudanese Christians. Deakin, a lesbian, said people shouldn’t have to fight to be who they are. Just like the gay community has had to struggle to attain its rights, she said, so have the Sudanese Christians. That’s not right, and they deserved this joyous occasion, she said.

The South Sudanese began rebelling in the early 1960s, and had a resurgence in the early 1980s that has lasted ever since. Their struggle gained popularity in America in the 2000s, when celebrities like George Clooney and prominent Christians, such as as George W. Bush, brought attention to their fight.

Sudanese immigrant Ruach Deng, 51, who dressed in a navy blue suit and shimmering red tie Saturday, said independence was the first step toward peace. But North Sudan still has to learn accept South Sudan’s secession, he said, and the two countries need to find a way to split Sudan’s coveted oil reserves.

“Happy day. We finally have our own country,” said Deng, a Sudanese immigrant with a gap-tooth smile as bright as Saturday’s blue sky. “But we still have a lot of issues we need to figure out.”

Mario Rikpa, 41, lost one brother in the civil war and two sisters in a village raid. He somberly recalled his fallen siblings, but described the day as “full of hope,” and a large step toward ending the bloodshed.

“This is the happiest day,” he said. “We’ve fought for 55 years. Today is the last day we do that.”

Jason Singer — 791-6437

[email protected]

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