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Eritrea's Path to Independence

After a 30-year war, residents of this Red Sea land struggle to rebuild and win recognition for their dream of sovereignty

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EACH evening Asmara's tree-lined boulevards are crammed with people strolling from one end of the city to the other, enjoying the simple freedom of walking after dark denied them for the past two decades under constant curfew.

The facades of many downtown buildings are marred by irregular blank spaces and great smudges of paint, testimony to the zeal with which Eritreans are erasing the memory of Ethiopia's 40-year rule here after routing its 150,000-man occupation Army on May 24, 1991. (Two days later, Ethiopia's brutal military dictatorship, under siege from a coalition of rebel groups, including Eritreans, collapsed.)

A towering sign in bold blue lettering indicates "Eritrean Airlines." Inside, a sheepish clerk admits the airline has no planes of its own, as he sells tickets for the daily flights of Ethiopian Airlines to and from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

In October, the Eritreans opened schools across the country with newly designed curricula in four local languages. Weeks later, citizens announced new criminal and civil codes and appointed dozens of judges to run the courts. Now, leaders of the new government are busy drafting a constitution.

Throughout this strategic Red Sea territory, efforts are under way to establish Eritrean independence as an inescapable fact prior to a formal, internationally supervised referendum on the issue planned for next year. Last May, the victorious Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) signed an agreement to delay the referendum for two years to give Ethiopia's new rulers a chance to stabilize their position after seizing power from the defeated, Soviet-backed government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam.

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