JUBA, South Sudan -- South Sudanese wept openly as they celebrated their independence Saturday, cheering, whistling and dancing down the streets in a ceremony fitting for the birth of a new nation.

"We are free at last," some chanted, flags draped around their shoulders.

A man on his knees kissed the ground.

The red, white and green flag of the newborn nation, readied at half-staff the day before, was hoisted over the capital of Juba.

Among the world leaders bearing witness on this historic day: United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and South African President Jacob Zuma.

"This is liberation, a new chapter," said Abuk Makuac, who escaped to the United States in 1984 and came back home to attend the independence day activities.

"No more war. We were born in the war, grew up in the war and married in war."

South Sudan's sovereignty officially breaks Africa's largest nation into two, the result of a January referendum overwhelmingly approved by voters.

The referendum was part of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war pitting a government dominated by Arab Muslims in the north against black Christians and animists in the south. The war killed about 2 million people.

Amid the independence celebrations, some residents paid tribute to relatives killed in the war.

"It is very emotional. I'm excited, but I'm also thinking of all the people who died for this to happen," said Victoria Bol, who lost dozens of family members.

Salva Kiir Mayardit, a former rebel leader who is South Sudan's first president, said his people cannot forget years of bloodshed but must now forgive and move forward. He vowed his people would never again be marginalized.

"As we celebrate our freedom and independence today, I want to assure the people of Darfur, Abyei and South Kordofan, we have not forgotten you," he said referring to three conflict-mired regions.

"When you cry, we cry," he said. "When you bleed, we also bleed.

In Washington, President Barack Obama issued a statement recognizing South Sudan's sovereignty.

"Today is a reminder that after the darkness of war, the light of a new dawn is possible," Obama said. "A proud flag flies over Juba and the map of the world has been redrawn."

There were shouts of joy, big hugs and hearty handshakes at South Sudan's new Washington embassy on Saturday. Others cried as a colorful new flag was raised.

"This day means a lot to me because we achieved our victory. We got our own country," says Anai Aluong. "We are a new nation now. We are very happy because God answered our prayer."

Aluong said she lost her father, brother, sister and friends during the decades-long civil war.