Eritreans Celebrate Their Independence

But choosing freedom was easy, analysts say; an all-out political contest will be a big leap

AFRICA has seldom seen such an explosion of joy.

Hundreds of thousands of jubilant Eritreans poured into the streets in many parts of the country this week to celebrate independence after a 30-year war with Ethiopia.

Some foreign and Eritrean analysts say the same energy and spirit seen in winning that war - and in celebrating independence - will help Eritrea tackle its next big battle: reviving a shattered economy.

In this capital city, the main avenues filled up almost shoulder to shoulder, night after night, with dancers of all ages as patriotic tunes blared from loudspeakers set on street lights. Children walked, trotted, or ran along other streets in spontaneous parades, waving green leaves as a sign of peace.

War veteran amputees, wearing their fighter jackets, propelled their wheelchairs down the streets or were pushed by friends. Women in white cotton shawls fluttered around street corners, chanting the political slogans that helped keep Eritrean spirits strong during the war. About 50,000 died, many were tortured, and nearly a third of the population was forced to flee the country during the conflict.

In villages, many farmers slaughtered some of their precious oxen to celebrate their new freedom, which most Eritreans mark from the start of their three-day referendum on independence, April 23-25.

The outcome of the referendum was announced Tuesday afternoon. In a turnout of 98.5 percent of the approximately 1.1 million registered voters, an unsurprising 99.8 percent voted in favor of independence. United Nations officials, who monitored the vote, said it was "free and fair." Eritrea recognized

Diplomatic recognition - from Italy, the United States, Sudan, and Egypt - followed within hours, even though the official date for independence is May 24.

Negasso Giedada, Ethiopian minister for information, speaking here, said his country would respect Eritrea's independence.

"This country [Eritrea] has a lot of problems, but it also has one great asset: the spirit of the people to do something," says Jacques Willemse, head of the relief and refugee arm of a Dutch-led coalition of aid agencies, which have helped Eritreans in rebel-held areas for more than a decade.

That spirit "will carry them into the battle for an improved economy," he adds.

Yemani Ghebreab, a senior official with the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), which won the war, sees another positive aspect in the way people participated in the referendum.

"I get surprised every time with the population of Eritrea - the way they worked on this exercise [referendum] ... their turnout, how they kept [voter] lines," says Mr. Yemani, who is also deputy secretary of the Department of External Affairs.

That kind of support for the government, he says, will translate into support for the sacrifices needed in restoring Eritrea's economy.

Eritrean officials are hopeful about foreign aid, but do not expect a massive flow of support because of the many competing demands for help from other countries.

But even without much foreign aid, Eritreans have accomplished a lot during the nearly two years since the EPLF came to power. The vital road from the port of Massawa to Asmera, badly damaged by heavy tank use during the war, has been repaired. Many rural recovery projects have been launched, including reforestation and terracing.

"People remember the odds against them [in the war]," says Tekie Fassehatzion, an Eritrean who teaches economics at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md. "They feel they can accomplish anything," he said here. Voting experience

Their latest accomplishment is the referendum. For many Eritreans, it was almost a religious experience, an act performed in memory of those who died. Many voters arrived hours before the 7 a.m. opening of the polling stations on the first day of voting.

In Christian areas, priests blessed polling stations. Many women kissed the ballot box as they slipped their blue (for "yes") ballot through the slot.

"I'm very happy," said Woizerirekesh Keshibiru, as she stepped out of a polling station here. Her brother, and four sons of her brother, were all killed in the war. "Under the past government it was very bad; there was a lot of killing," she said.

Some wealthier Eritreans had themselves videotaped as they voted or danced in the streets.

The near-unanimous vote in the referendum did not surprise Keith Klein of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Washington. The referendum was "an effective use of the election process as a demonstration of the national will," says Mr. Klein, one of the international observers.

But moving from a predictable, one-issue election to an all-out political contest will be a big leap, says another observer, Terrence Lyons. "The key is to build on this process for an election in which there is more controversy, such as multiparty elections," says Mr. Lyons, Africa specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

For the foreseeable future, Eritrea is likely to remain under military rule.

Isaias Afewerki, secretary- general of EPLF, who also heads Eritrea's provisional government, is making no promises about when multiparty elections will be held.

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