ASMERA, ETHIOPIA — IN a dirt courtyard here yesterday, 18 women in long dresses and cotton shawls danced in a circle, clapping their hands to the beat of a drum and filling the air with ululations, their traditional, high-pitched, wavering yells.
The women were just a few of the Eritreans jumping the gun on what is certain to be a national explosion of celebrations as Eritreans vote for independence in a three-day referendum starting today.
After 30 years of war against the Ethiopian Army, which was one of Africa's strongest, there is little doubt that Eritrea, a nation of about 3.5 million people and one of the poorest in the world, is on the verge of nationhood. The official date of independence is May 24, but most Eritreans will celebrate it next week. (Eritrean diaspora votes, Page 7.)
"This is a historic moment," said Isaias Afewerki, secretary-general of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), which won the war in May 1991.
Mr. Afewerki, wearing a green cardigan sweater and sport shirt as he met with reporters, is described by a Western diplomat as "very, very popular" among his people and not corrupt. He entered the room without the kind of pomp and ceremony most African leaders prefer.
While Afewerki was sedate in his replies to questions, the mood on the streets was one of jubilation.
"We need our freedom," says Tekeste Ghebrah, an 11-year veteran of the war, and now a driver.
Michael Ghezai, a returned Eritrean refugee, is excited about the referendum, in which he and the overwhelming majority of voters are likely to vote yes. "I can't express my happiness, even in my mother language," he says on one of the clean, tree-lined streets in this city - about to become a national capital.
While exuberant, Eritreans, including political leaders here, are also realistic about the economic and political challenges facing their new country. The biggest challenge? "In a word - the economy," says Cahsai Berhane, an Eritrean industrial consultant.
During the war Asmera, with its wide boulevards and Italian-style pink and yellow-colored brick homes, was the Ethiopian Army's last stronghold in Eritrea. The city was spared bombings and artillery attacks because the Ethiopian military in Asmera surrendered after other rebel groups in Ethiopia overthrew the government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam.
But the port town of Massawa, like most other key towns and scores of villages, is still heavily damaged, and the road network is in terrible condition.
Tens of thousands died in the war - on both sides. More than 750,000 Eritreans who fled the terrors of the war still live outside the country as refugees, because of the lack of homes, jobs, and basic services in Eritrea.
"There's a big agenda" for independent Eritrea, says Roy Pateman, a professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"Many of the brightest people were killed or mutilated, or emigrated," says Professor Pateman, author of a book on Eritrea. He cites the need to develop a court system and encourage the expansion of private institutions, such as churches and human rights groups. Eritrea's only human rights office was recently closed with no explanation except that laws on the organization of such groups were being prepared.
Eritrea also faces political challenges. The Afar, a minority ethnic group living in southern Eritrea as well as parts of Ethiopia and Djibouti, say they want their own homeland someday.
In neighboring Ethiopia, many people are upset with the vote. Several students at an anti-referendum march in January were killed by Ethiopian security forces. Though Ethiopia and Eritrea seek good relations, discontent over the referendum could pose political problems within Ethiopia, causing instability on Eritrea's border.
"People have sacrificed their lives for years - for generations - to ensure the unity of Ethiopia," an independent Ethiopian journalist said this week, in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Fundamentalist Muslim groups operating mostly out of neighboring Sudan could also pose a destabilizing threat. Eritrea is a mixture of moderate Muslims and Christians, with some animists.
Muslims hold several key posts in the transitional government. But some supporters of the mostly Muslim Eritrean Liberation Front, which earlier unsuccessfully fought the EPLF, may still be disgruntled.
Western and Eritrean analysts point out that the long war has forged a unity among the majority of Eritrean Muslims, Christians, and different ethnic groups that is unusual in Africa today.
"The war has made Eritrea cohesive," the Western diplomat says.
"Working together, fighting together, dying together create a spiritual unity," Afewerki says. "We feel we are one."
Afewerki, the EPLF leader, says Eritrea will likely have non-party elections to a national assembly within "a couple of years." He said the country would eventually have multiparty elections, but probably not within the next five years.