IN a small, crowded cafe, a woman soldier in an Army jacket and baggy slacks looks up as two Eritrean women in smart, colorful dresses and styled haircuts walk in. The fighter's eyes follow them.
For the women of Africa's youngest nation, the scene evokes former and future front lines. Although Eritrean women played a major role during the 30-year war for independence, they do not enjoy equal rights. As the nation celebrates its official independence day today, many women soldiers worry that peace may allow a return of the patriarchal social structures that faded during the struggle for liberation.
Women were allowed to vote in the April 23-25 referendum on independence and a few Cabinet seats are held by women. But only six of 131 members of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) central committee are women, and no women sit on the 19-member political committee, the nation's highest authority.
"A few women at the head doesn't mean anything," says Leteyesus Negassis, project coordinator for the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW), headquartered here.
After years of hardship in the trenches, Eritrea's female fighters worry about the unfamiliar challenges of civilian life. Most have been out of touch with the general society for more than a decade. Most have little education. The government lacks the funds to train them for new jobs.
From 1961 to 1991 Eritreans fought a grueling war against the Ethiopian Army, which, backed at different times by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Israel, was one of the best-equipped in Africa.
Pressed to the limit, the EPLF put women in fatigues and sent them into combat - lots of combat. About 35 percent of the frontline soldiers were women, according to Roy Patemen, a professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles. Women also served as doctors, village organizers, and administrators.
Of the current 100,000-strong Eritrean Army, roughly 20,000 are women. But that is about to change. The EPLF-run government plans to demobilize about two-thirds of its Army, including nearly 10,000 women. So far, some 300 to 400 military women have been reassigned to civilians jobs.
Abrehet Yemane is a veteran of 15 major battles. She spent eight years in Ethiopia's infamous Alem Bekach prison, known by inmates as the "End of the World." Inmates received only three pieces of bread a day, and no blankets or clothing, she says. Friends on the outside had to supply food and basic necessities.
Today she sits behind a wooden desk in a small, ground-floor office at NUEW, helping women fighters make the transition to civilian life. A dress has replaced the fatigues she once wore. Eritrea's women warriors, Ms. Yemane says, have a right to be proud of their war records.
"They have confidence: `I'm a fighter; I did something for my country,' " she explains. "But as human beings ... they must compete in jobs, in their appearance.
"Their choices in the field were very limited. In the city, the choices are so wide. Most are peasants. To do like city girls, you must know [city life]. It's not a problem of economics, but culture," she says.
During the war, as the EPLF gradually expanded the area under its control, women fighters began filling vital roles in more and more villages, protecting the residents and offering basic health and education services.
Through such work, many women soldiers found themselves nudging an ancient, tradition-bound society toward a new appraisal of the worth of women. Not only could they cook, haul water, and have babies, but they could shoot, command men, and help run a country.
"We are confident and independent," says Senait Iyob, who spent 13 years in active service in the military, starting in 1978. She sits in the living room of her family's apartment with a sister, Salome, who also fought in the war. After life in the military, Senait says, traditions such as arranged marriage and male-run families are unacceptable.
"You wanted to have your gun, and shoot, and give your life for it [your country]. It's not because you want to kill," she says of her decision to join before finishing high school.
Today Senait works for Eritrean Television and wants to go to university to study journalism. "We sacrificed our youth, our education," she says with a quiet intensity.
She and Salome are finishing their high school education in a crowded night class here, packed with ex-fighters and others their age wanting to redirect their lives now that peace has been gained. "Inside I feel as if I were 17 years old," Senait says.
Salome has a government job publishing school books. She's bored. "I have a lot of ideas," she says. "I'd like to change my profession to something which motivates my mind - maybe study anthropology."
But the obstacles are many. Education and child care - Salome has two young sons - require money. Fighters earn only $10 a month plus $1 for every year of service. Still in the military, Salome and Senait receive about $25 a month between them. Lack of money also crimps any efforts to look less like a fighter.
"Everyone presses you to dress like a woman," says Senait. "The problem is, you are very poor." She says her family has gotten some extra help from their sister Ruth, a post-doctorate fellow in political science at Emory University in Decatur, Ga. Ruth Iyob argues for international financial aid to help the government train women fighters for civilian jobs and to provide day care for working mothers, something they got during the war.
Split families are another problem. During the war years, many married couples joined the EPLF, only to end up divorced or separated. Senait is divorced and has a young son. Salome is separated from her husband.
"People lived apart, and you had only one month vacation a year," says Khadija Naib, another woman fighter at NUEW.