JUBA — Volunteers cleared away the rubbish and worshippers offered prayers for its future on Sunday, after South Sudan was feted by world leaders as it celebrated independence and began the tough task of nationbuilding.

More than 1,800 people have died in conflict this year (AFP, Michele Sibiloni)

Churches in the capital were packed with southerners giving thanks for the long-awaited freedom of their newborn nation.

“It was a very unique day in my life — I was a little bit unsure if this day was going to come without the north and south being dragged back to war,” said Gabriel Kiir, at Saint Joseph’s Catholic church.

“Today everyone is praying for unity among southerners, for an end to tribalism and government corruption,” the 23-year-old student told AFP, standing in the shade of a tree outside the crowded church, along with hundreds of others.

In Juba?s Freedom Square, the site of Saturday?s ceremony, youth volunteers collected rubbish across the vast dirt field where foreign dignitaries and tens of thousands of southerners witnessed the declaration of independence and saw the new country?s flag raised.

“It is a big, big job but we want to make our new capital look beautiful,” said John Goi Deng, a youth mobiliser, as he looked out at the thousands of paper flags and plastic bottles that littered the venue.

“This is the beginning of building the country. You first have to clean and then you can start to build,” Deng added.

The challenges ahead are truly daunting for one of the poorest countries on earth that was left in ruins after five decades of devastating conflict between southern rebels and successive Sudanese governments.

“Joy at independence is tempered by ongoing troubles in the south and north alike,” said Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst with Brussels-based think-tank the International Crisis Group, in a recent report.

“On the UN’s Human Development Index — a measure of overall quality of life and development — Sudan currently ranks 154th out of 169. South Sudan will start even closer to the bottom,” Vertin added, in the report that was co-authored by Sudan expert Aly Verjee.

In addition to the chronic lack of even the most basic infrastructure, the government of South Sudan has to tackle the problem of violent conflict within its borders, which has killed more than 1,800 people killed so far this year.

Rampant corruption among politicians, and serious human rights abuses by the southern army, as it struggles to transform itself from a rebel to a regular force, are also high on the list of concerns.

Kenya’s Cardinal John Njue called on South Sudan’s leaders to be “instruments of peace and unity,” in his sermon at Juba’s Catholic cathedral.

“I appeal to you, my dear politicians, do not fall into the trap where many have failed,” he told the congregation.

At the Juba Christian Centre Pentecostal church, pastor Marcelo Obwoma was preparing to preside over a special thanksgiving service.

“So many people are coming today as we are giving thanks on this special day, the beginning of our independence,” Obwoma said.

“We are praying for guidance for the government so that the country remains peaceful and can grow,” Obwoma said.

Standing on the steps of the church, South Sudanese lawmaker Julius Moilinga said that after decades of civil war and struggle, people were keen to celebrate and look to the future.

“All through the years (of fighting), people were praying to God for peace and independence, so now we have to come to church to thank him for giving it to us and ask for his help,” Moilinga said.

“It is one thing to achieve independence but it is another thing to walk together towards establishing a working country,” Moilinga said.

Across town, construction worker Aloysious Keny, 36, said that despite the many challenges the country faces, for the first time he felt confident enough to bring his children back to Juba from neighbouring Uganda, where the family had spent over a decade living as refugees.

“The future began yesterday,” Keny said. “Peace is now confirmed and the happiness that began yesterday, we feel it will remain like this for our land and for our children.”