WHEN Eritrean transport workers discovered a warehouse full of iron rails and other spare parts for the antique, Italian-built, narrow-gauge railway that was destroyed in their recent war of independence, there was only one thing to do - rebuild the railway.
The rejection of Italian offers to reconstruct the line at a cost of more than $60 million was typical.
``We do not see why we should pay such a large amount of money when we can do the job ourselves,'' said Minister of Transport Giorgis Teklemikael.
Born out of a 30-year war - the continent's longest - and wracked by chronic famine, Africa's newest nation is shocking the experts with its stubborn determination to pull itself out of ruin and poverty much as it won its independence - by dint of its own efforts and on its own terms.
``We have been left with a very shattered economy, and that has compounded the dependence that we have,'' remarked President Isaias Afwerki, during a recent interview in his sparsely furnished office.
``The time everyone in this country will feel relieved will be when we are not asking anyone to give us any help.''
A six-week tour of Eritrea revealed a daunting set of challenges. The Eritreans have to create a country virtually from scratch, designing everything from passports, drivers' licenses, and postage stamps to telecommunication systems, school curricula, road and rail networks, and macroeconomic-development policies.
To conserve meager resources, the former guerrillas now serving in the government, including the president, collect only a basic living allowance instead of salaries.
Two new laws, one requiring everyone over the age of 18 to serve 18 months of national service, and the other reforming the country's arcane land-tenure system, will fuel a national reconstruction effort aimed at achieving economic self-sufficiency within a decade, according to President Isaias.
The national-service campaign is intended to compensate for Eritrea's lack of capital, while welding together a diverse society composed of nine ethno-linguistic groups and roughly divided between Muslims and Christians.
These laws also tackle the deep-rooted inequalities between women and men by mandating their common participation in reconstruction and for the first time guaranteeing equal rights to land.
Eritreans face the overarching political challenge of creating a viable, secular, democratic government in a region rent by intensifying religious and ethnic strife.
The new country is surrounded by the strife-torn African nations of Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Yemen - also split by warring factions - faces them across the Red Sea.
Against this backdrop, the Eritreans are launching a 50-person Constitution Commission, slated to produce a draft for ratification in two years after an extensive process of consultation and debate within the country and among exiles and refugees living abroad.
Following approval of a constitution, the transitional government promises multiparty, national elections and a transfer to civilian rule. Parties based on ethnicity or religion, however, will be banned, say officials.
``We have a tragic history,'' says Meheret Iyob, a prominent woman on the commission, referring to past strife in Eritrea.
``We want to have complete freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, but it is very obvious that we have to make this a secular state - otherwise, there will just be destruction,'' she says.
Meanwhile, hotly contested local elections are taking place throughout the country. And former guerrillas are mobilizing a mass political movement - the People's Front for Democracy and Justice -
to stimulate grass-roots participation in the transition and spark political debate in a society with no tradition of institutional pluralism.
``I'd characterize their prospects for development as excellent,'' says United States Ambassador Robert Houdek. ``The dedication of these people, combined with an incredible honesty and a capacity for hard work, augur well....''
Most observers point to Eritrea's lack of crime and corruption as qualities attractive to foreign investors, as well as casual visitors. Police don't carry guns in the capital, Asmara, where men and women walk the dimly lit streets at night without apparent anxiety.
``Eritrea is the island of stability in the Horn of Africa,'' says one Western diplomat.
The three-decade war with Ethiopia devastated the country's infrastructure: Water systems in the major towns were damaged, causing profuse leaking; port facilities in Massawa, the country's main outlet to the Red Sea, were badly damaged by heavy bombing; and the few asphalt roads were torn up. The rail system was entirely dismantled, its iron rails used to make bunkers.
What remained at the end of the war of the country's light industry had not been maintained or modernized in a quarter century, and urban unemployment exceeded 30 percent of the economically active population.
Meanwhile, persistent drought through the 1980s kept the rural population on the brink of famine, while 1 million of their countrymen languished in exile abroad, over half of them in squalid refugee camps in neighboring Sudan.
In 1993, the World Bank estimated the country's per capita annual income at only $70 to $150, compared with $330 for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, making it one of the world's poorest nations.
Eritrea is using its National Service program to rebuild its infrastructure and transform its agriculture sector. (See related story, far right.) But it is also embarking on another kind of nation building: developing a tolerance for pluralism. Though the country's leaders say they support independent social, cultural, and even political organizing, Eritrea has no tradition of pluralism in governmental structures.
New nongovernmental organizations are slowly evolving from civilian support organizations set up by the liberation front during the war.
The largest of these is the National Confederation of Eritrean Workers (NCEW), launched in September by five industry-based union federations.
With only 20,000 members, the new trade union confederation is already going head-to-head with the government, still the country's largest employer, over bread-and-butter issues such as the length of paid maternity leave, vacation, and other benefits.
However, the fledgling organization has to overcome habits of passivity bred into the workers by Soviet-style unions set up under Ethiopian rule.
Leaders in those unions were selected by the occupation forces, and open debate was discouraged, if not severely punished, according the NCEW vice general secretary Tsegai Mogos.
``Our main objective now is simply to develop trust and build dignity among our members,'' he says.