Many arrived before dawn, clad in their Sunday best. They stood in line for three to four hours in the scorching sun.
But for voters in Dili, East Timor, the wait to mark or punch ballot cards behind cardboard screens was worth it.
Some 400,000 East Timorese went to the polls yesterday to elect a constitutional assembly that will lay down a blueprint for full independence in 2002, keeping what the United Nations has called a date with democracy.
"It's very important to vote," says Castela Maria, who was raised in Australia and only returned to East Timor last year. "This is my country, and this is our independence."
It was a marked difference from the same date two years ago, when overwhelming approval of a referendum to end Indonesian rule set off a deadly rampage by Jakarta-backed militias. Violence surrounding that vote killed an estimated 600 to 2,000 people.
Three weeks later, UN peacekeepers arrived to secure the territory and begin the slow, difficult job of rebuilding. Despite millions in foreign aid, much of East Timor's infrastructure still lies in ruin, and the country remains steeped in poverty and rural stagnation.
Once the votes are tallied and politicians find their place in the new assembly, East Timor will face one of its first major decisions: choosing an official language for the new Constitution. Unfortunately, that's one of the most divisive issues on the table.
Yesterday's ballot papers, printed in three languages - Tetum, Indonesian, and Portuguese - reflect a long legacy of foreign domination and conflict.
Portuguese settlers began arriving here in the 16th century, as Dutch traders slowly conquered other islands in the archipelago that later became Indonesia. The 1859 Treaty of Lisbon divided Timor into a Portuguese-controlled east and Dutch-controlled west. It was briefly occupied by Australia and then Japan during World War II.
When Portugal moved to democratic rule in 1974, two East Timorese political parties, Fretilin and the UDT, emerged to push for independence, but quickly fell into internal conflict.
Indonesia invaded in 1975 and declared East Timor a province the following year. Falintil, the guerrilla wing of Fretilin, led the armed resistance to the occupation. Fighting, starvation, and disease are believed to have claimed at least 100,000 lives.
Most East Timorese nowadays speak Indonesian and Tetum, a local trading language.
But for the older generation of resistance leaders who led the 24-year struggle against Indonesian rule, the language of choice is Portuguese. Fretilin, the party tipped to sweep yesterday's ballot, is committed to restoring the former colonial tongue.
Former guerrilla leader José Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmão, who is widely expected to become the country's first president in elections next year, argues that East Timor draws its identity from a history and language that sets it apart from Indonesia.
Mr. Gusmão, who became fluent in Indonesian during his seven years in a Jakarta jail, says he understands the difficulties of learning a new language. But he says it is a hardship the younger, Indonesian-
schooled generation must bear. "In our struggle, many times I had to send off my guerrillas to die [fighting the Indonesian Army]. We [must] look at the nation, not the interests of some groups."
That argument doesn't cut much ice with Ignacio Muniz, a young moneychanger in Dili. He speaks Indonesian, Tetum, and a few words of English (learned from UN staffers who use his services). "I prefer Indonesian. If we start studying Portuguese, it will be very tough," he grumbles.
A recent UN report appears to bolster his argument. It estimates that using Portuguese as the official language - and requiring all civil servants to use it - would drain one-third of East Timor's annual state budget. That's a steep price for a country that depends almost entirely on foreign aid.
Of course, getting Mr. Muniz and other street peddlers into a school would be a start. When Indonesia pulled out in 1999, it not only destroyed most of the country's classrooms, but also removed thousands of teachers recruited from other islands in Indonesia.
One-third of East Timor's population is of school age, and political and community leaders say educating these young people is the key to the nation's future. Street crime in Dili has spiked over the past year, with gangs of youths clashing in street battles borne out of boredom and the absence of alternatives.
The UN has recruited 6,500 school and university teachers in the past two years, and says close to 2,700 classrooms in 373 schools razed in the 1999 violence will be back to normal in time for classes to start in September.
During the enthusiastic and mostly peaceful election campaign, local and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) fanned out across this mountainous, arid country to spread the word about pluralism, democracy, and tolerance.
"This is a key part of the nationbuilding process," says Tessa Piper, director of civil society programs for the Asia Foundation, a US nonprofit group.
Another burning issue for East Timor's nationbuilders is one that the UN has barely touched: justice for the victims of Indonesian troops and Jakarta-backed militia.
The UN last year rejected calls for a War Crimes Tribunal for East Timor, opting to allow Indonesia to investigate its own actions. Jakarta has yet to convene a special court, and there are concerns that if and when it does, the probe won't include senior military commanders accused of orchestrating the violence.
Even in East Timor, political and community leaders are divided on how far to push for justice. Gusmão has called for a general amnesty. But echoing the sentiments of main political parties, NGO activist Nuno Rodrigues says: "Reconciliation can only happen if there's justice."
Meanwhile, some East Timorese complain that militia members continue to live among them. "I know some militiamen [involved in the violence] are living near my family, but what can we do?" asks a taxi driver who only gave his first name, Joaquin. Observers say this could invite future reprisals.