Eritrea's Path to Independence
After a 30-year war, residents of this Red Sea land struggle to rebuild and win recognition for their dream of sovereignty
EACH evening Asmara's tree-lined boulevards are crammed with people strolling from one end of the city to the other, enjoying the simple freedom of walking after dark denied them for the past two decades under constant curfew.Skip to next paragraph
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The facades of many downtown buildings are marred by irregular blank spaces and great smudges of paint, testimony to the zeal with which Eritreans are erasing the memory of Ethiopia's 40-year rule here after routing its 150,000-man occupation Army on May 24, 1991. (Two days later, Ethiopia's brutal military dictatorship, under siege from a coalition of rebel groups, including Eritreans, collapsed.)
A towering sign in bold blue lettering indicates "Eritrean Airlines." Inside, a sheepish clerk admits the airline has no planes of its own, as he sells tickets for the daily flights of Ethiopian Airlines to and from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
In October, the Eritreans opened schools across the country with newly designed curricula in four local languages. Weeks later, citizens announced new criminal and civil codes and appointed dozens of judges to run the courts. Now, leaders of the new government are busy drafting a constitution.
Throughout this strategic Red Sea territory, efforts are under way to establish Eritrean independence as an inescapable fact prior to a formal, internationally supervised referendum on the issue planned for next year. Last May, the victorious Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) signed an agreement to delay the referendum for two years to give Ethiopia's new rulers a chance to stabilize their position after seizing power from the defeated, Soviet-backed government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam.
The priorities for the new provisional government of Eritrea, senior officials say, are creation of stable, democratic political institutions and reconstruction of the country's war- and drought-ravaged economy. Neither is likely to be easy.
Eritrea's antiquated infrastructure is in ruins. Its subsistence agriculture is reeling from chronic drought and severe environmental degradation, and its limited light-manufacturing sector was largely destroyed by the war. As a result, about 85 percent of the country's 3.5 million people, many of them displaced by fighting, survive on international relief.
During a five-week tour by bus, flatbed truck, four-wheel drive vehicle and, occasionally, by foot, this reporter spoke with scores of officials, private citizens, local and foreign relief workers, and visiting diplomats about Eritrea's prospects. The trip revealed a desperately poor people who nevertheless remain elated at their victory and optimistic about the future.
The Eritreans launched their war for independence from Ethiopia in 1961 as Ethiopia, with US and Israeli backing, moved to annex the former Italian colony after dissolving a United Nations-sponsored federation between the two. A self-described "socialist" military junta seized power from Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. The new government realigned Ethiopia with the Soviet Union and stepped up the war with the $10 billion-plus in Soviet arms that poured in.
Escalating fighting during the 1980s increased the destruction and helped trigger a series of famines in Eritrea and much of Ethiopia, already one of the world's poorest countries. But it did little to alter the outcome. Fighting with captured weapons and a volunteer army of 95,000 men and women, the Eritreans broke the stalemate in 1988 and finally won last May.