PEERING through a thicket of brush from a bunker atop Seseb Hill, one can see the open trenches of the Ethiopian Army only 100 yards away. In the distance, the white stone houses of Asmara, the besieged Eritrean capital, are also visible. At 7:40 a.m., two Soviet-supplied MiG-23 jets buzz the trenches, but they are apparently discouraged by the barrage of anti-aircraft fire that peppers the bleached tropical sky. In their wake, the air is filled with the insistent hissing of thousands of flies above the dead left from the last major battle here.
One day soon, the Ethiopian trenches are likely to be overrun by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in their seemingly inexorable march to Asmara, one of the last government strongholds in Eritrea. The capture of Asmara, with its 120,000-man Army garrison and its 500,000 civilians, would climax a string of Eritrean victories that began in early 1988.
This drive has brought them to the brink of winning their 30-year fight for independence from Ethiopia. Half the Ethiopian Army, including virtually all of its elite units, faces possible extinction as a fighting force here. This would leave a power vacuum in Ethiopia that more than a dozen rival political and ethnic-based opposition movements are eager to fill.
Last June, the beleaguered Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam publicly acknowledged the seriousness of the crisis and issued an urgent call for all Army and police veterans up to the age of 70 to join the war effort.
Ethiopia is also benefiting from sharp increases in training and weapons from Israel and North Korea, according to EPLF sources here behind the front, who nonetheless remain sanguine about their prospects.
``The war is more or less over,'' says Sebhat Efram with casual confidence during an interview in the nearby port of Massawa, captured by the EPLF in February this year. Mr. Efram heads the EPLF's general staff and commands the guerrilla forces encircling Asmara.
``We have the upper hand now, and we can take the offensive at any time,'' Efram said. ``Given the morale and the fighting spirit of the Ethiopian Army, we are confident that we will be victorious in this war.''
The Eritreans have been fighting since the former Italian colony was annexed by Ethiopia in 1962, abrogating a United Nations-sponsored federation between the two states.
For their part, the Eritreans insist they were wronged by the international community after World War II when they were the only Italian colony denied self-rule.
Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Selassie banned the Eritrean flag, and replaced the elected Eritrean governor with a handpicked successor. He imposed the Ethiopian Amharic language and finally forced the Eritrean parliament to vote itself out of existence.
By the mid-1970s, Selassie's government was on the verge of collapse. A devastating famine in 1972-73 claimed over a quarter of a million lives before public exposure triggered a rush of international food aid. By 1974, with the economy in shambles, the rebelling Eritreans had over half of Ethiopia's US and Israeli-trained Army tied down. In September, the Army mutinied and carried the legendary African statesman off to prison in the back seat of a battered Volkswagen.
A hastily assembled Army committee declared the kingdom a ``socialist state,'' and pledged a new era of peace and prosperity to the country's 40 million peasant farmers. After months of bloody wrangling, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as Ethiopia's unchallenged strongman and realigned the country with the Soviet Union. But 16 years later, Ethiopia remains the world's poorest county, plagued by chronic famine.
Despite its crushing poverty, the regime bought or borrowed over $10 billion in sophisticated Soviet arms to build the most powerful army black Africa has ever seen. This did not slow the Eritreans, who, with little consistent outside support, amassed a staggering arsenal of their own, mainly by capturing it from government forces.
Despite their challenges, Eritrean rebels talk as if they taste victory.
On a three-week tour of EPLF-held areas - the 14th visit to this northeast African war zone in as many years - I found many guerrilla leaders preoccupied with the problems they will face if they are suddenly thrust into the role of governing their war and drought-ravaged land.
Most of those now fighting the war were born after it started, but many of the EPLF leaders are from the last generation of Eritreans to finish secondary school and reach university before 1974, when both Ethiopia's government and its US-designed educational system disintegrated.
Behind the lines, most nonmilitary EPLF personnel are busily drawing up contingency plans for the transition from a liberation movement to an interim government. Despite their enthusiasm at the prospect, most say they expect the next phase to be more difficult than the last.
``Our country is in ruins, our cities are destroyed, and our population is displaced or dispersed,'' says EPLF Central Committee member Andeberhan Wolde Giorgis. ``A gigantic task of national reconstruction awaits us.'' Opening to diversity
The EPLF has sharply revised the rigid policies favoring state domination of economic and political life that were enshrined in the front's official program as recently as 1987.
``We were carried off by the revolutionary and leftist upheavals that were the order of the day in the 1960s,'' said Haile Woldensai, who co-chairs the EPLF's Department of National Guidance. Mr. Woldensai joined the movement in 1966 at the age of 19.
Through the late 1970s, the EPLF identified itself with the ``socialist camp'' and termed the Soviet Union a ``strategic ally.'' The intervention of the Soviets on behalf of Ethiopia shocked many EPLF fighters. ``We found that our natural allies were trying to eliminate us,'' said Woldensai. ``The battlefield was a school for us.''
Since then, EPLF leaders have abandoned commitments to nationalize agriculture, industry, banking, and other assets in favor of calls for a regulated market economy. EPLF leaders have also gone on record as favoring a multiparty political system, though they qualify this to say parties based on religion or ethnicity are likely to be disqualified.
``Diversity is strength,'' said Wolde Giorgis, a Harvard University graduate and now the editor of ``Saghem,'' the main official EPLF publication. ``The most important thing for us is the creation of a healthy political climate which will recognize the fundamental freedoms and liberties of the citizen. This will be the guarantee for economic and social progress.''
Stefanos Seyoum, a US-educated economist says that ``After the war, the main responsibility of the EPLF will be to reconstruct the country and get the economy moving.'' As head of the EPLF's Agriculture Commission, Mr. Seyoum describes the Eritrean economy as ``totally destroyed.'' The main needs will be for training and capital, both of which are in extremely short supply, he says. The EPLF is calling on Eritreans-in-exile to invest their time and money in rebuilding the country. One result is a sort of Eritrean ``peace corps'' in reverse. Dozens of volunteers - Eritrean natives - living in North America and Europe are here now for stints of six to 18 months as teachers, mechanics, financial planners, and even computer programmers.
In June, 13 Eritrean businessmen living in Sudan applied to the EPLF to charter a corporation to trade in basic commodities. They put up $100,000 themselves, and have raised $2 million from other Eritrean refugees for the venture. Their long-range aims include developing agricultural and mineral resources, and capitalizing small industries, according to one of the investors now traveling in Eritrea. Fighting in the trenches
Meanwhile, the terrible costs of Africa's longest running armed conflict continue to mount.
While EPLF leaders claim over 4,400 Ethiopian casualties in a single two-day battle at Seseb Hill last month, Ethiopian government officials also claim significant success. Daily Ethiopian air raids and frequent infantry forays add steadily to the Eritrean death toll.
But a four-hour tour of the front-line trenches found scores of dead government soldiers in the valley between the two opposing sides to provide mute confirmation of the EPLF assessment. The scene bore the marks of a hasty Army retreat. The Eritreans held all the high ground in the face-off.
Rebel fighters were in the midst of carving fresh trenches out of the thin topsoil and solid rock, several hundred yards ahead of the site of the last battle.
The EPLF now confronts the government forces on three interlocking battlefronts around Asmara, after driving them backward in a series of field battles utilizing mechanized tank brigades and extensive long range artillery. On the eastern escarpment, near the town of Ghinda, EPLF forces are dug in within 12 miles of the Asmara International Airport, through which the government garrison currently receives all of its supplies.
On the southern front, near the town of Decamere, EPLF units are 25 miles from the airport. A small advance on either flank would position the Eritreans to shut down the airport indefinitely. The EPLF would then have to decide whether to wait for a white flag or to launch a direct assault on the city.