The Rev. Jacob Nhail Guut recalls painfully the relentless bombardment of his village in Southern Sudan about 20 years ago.

“I was only ten years old and I can remember the intense bombing. We all had to flee to safety. After walking for 16 days in the bush without any food or water, we finally arrived in Ethiopia,” Guut, a leader from the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in Sudan who lives in Kenya told ENInews in an interview in Nairobi on Jan. 15.

The clergyman’s story captures the struggles of church leaders who went into exile and assembled refugee congregations which they now hope to take back home. The leaders are counting on the success of the referendum to hope for stability, peace and security.

In mid-January, southern Sudanese were voting in a referendum that will determine whether Southern Sudan will remain joined to the rest of the Sudan or break away to form a new nation.

The polls were mandated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in Nairobi in 2005 between the Government of Sudan and former rebels the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

The pact stabilized the region which has been the subject of two long civil wars, one from 1956 – 1972. In the second war which ran from 1983-2005, over 2 million people are believed to have died and another 4.5 million displaced in the conflict centering on resources and religion.

“The vote will offer us a chance to take our people back home. Many of them have been yearning to return there, but we feared the war may return,” said Guut who briefly returned to Sudan from Ethiopia, but could not find a settlement because the war was still raging.

So he trekked to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where he later started preaching as a lay leader. “When I see many of them coming to church, I am happy. This makes me forget the challenges we have faced here (in exile),” said Guut who was ordained in 2005.

He spoke of how clergy struggled to meet the costs of preaching the Gospel, equipment and training. Some leaders, according to Guut, built churches with the smallest support, because the refugees’ congregations were poor. The majority had no income because they were not allowed to take any form of formal employment, although the government allowed them to stay as long as they could support themselves.

“From the beginning, things were very difficult. You will find us preaching in the church, yet we are all the time worrying about how we shall meet the needs of our families. All along we worked without expecting any payment or support from our congregations because they could not afford it. We were committed to the call, even in this situation,” he said.

Pastor Daniel Yhor Akec of the Sudan Interior Church says the leaders survived through sharing Bible stories with their congregation.

“All refugees face a lot of challenges ... They lack the most basic human needs. Theirs is a life of struggle, but we encouraged them by sharing Bible stories, like that of the people of Israel and their journey to the Promised Land,” said Akec who became a pastor in Kakuma.

He said he is confident that Southern Sudan will soon become peaceful nation after decades of fighting.

In 1983, the Rev. David Ibon started the Murle Congregation Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Sudan. He said most of the churches like his depended on support from local churches and family members in Kenya. Others were lucky to get sponsors in Europe and the U.S.

“It has been very difficult. If we did not believe this was a call from God, we would not have managed to continue preaching the word. Many times, we did not have food for our families,” said Ibon.

According to Ibon, leaders are pleased the referendum vote was peaceful and signaled an end to war, but some are cautious that with no proper education and support, it may take decades before actual development is seen in the southern region.