Eritrea nears end of road to freedom: A vote for independence in tomorrow's referendum looks certain, writes Richard Dowden from Asmara

THE DATE has been fixed and the invitations to the celebrations have already been issued. So certain are the new rulers of Eritrea that they will win a 'yes' for independence in the referendum tomorrow that they have set 24 May as the date for the new country's birth.

The diplomatic guests are diplomatic enough not to reply to the invitations yet - not that they doubt the referendum will produce an almost unanimous 'yes' vote. They say it would be jumping the gun. But there is also, perhaps, a feeling of guilt about Eritrea in the corridors of the world's foreign ministries. Eritrea is like an abandoned child who has returned a self-made man.

The Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) will tell you how the Eritrean people have fought for 30 years for this moment. They will tell how they were colonised by Ethiopia and began a guerrilla war against the armies of the emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1962. They will recall how they nearly freed the whole country in 1977, only to be almost crushed the following year by the armies of President Mengistu Haile Mariam, newly supplied by the Soviet Union, and then how they fought and slowly pushed his armies south.

They will recall the almost daily bombing raids on villages and how Eritreans lived underground, with doctors administering surgery in hospital bunkers, with underground factories turning out plasma bags and pharmaceuticals, and with underground schools.

They will recall how they brought famine relief in convoys across the border from Sudan despite persistent bombing by Mengistu's air force. They will recall the torture and execution of hundreds of suspect supporters of the EPLF by secret police, and the thousands of lives lost in the cause - the referendum. All this was done for the right to choose.

This is all true. The war for Eritrea is the 20th century's longest and least reported. Its result is this century's version of David and Goliath. But the story is riven with contradiction and paradox, none of which will appear in the official version or be mentioned in front of the diplomats next month. Eritrea needs friends.

The first omission will be that Eritrea is an Italian invention. It was the name given to the Red Sea-coast area Italy took over in the late 19th century. The name is derived from the Greek name for the Red Sea.

There are more than 10 different peoples in Eritrea. The most powerful and the strongest advocates of independence are the highlanders, who are the same race and culture as those across the border in Ethiopia. So, at a time when many people are questioning the viability of African states that include diverse peoples within borders drawn by European powers 100 years ago, here is Eritrea, a typical colonial creation, fighting for independence from its 'natural' motherland.

The Eritrean nation was founded by the experience of rejection and forged by Mengistu's war against it. When the Italians invaded Ethiopia from Eritrea in 1936, many Eritreans fought alongside the fascists. At the end of the war, therefore, Eritrea had few friends and Britain, which had driven Italy out, asked the United Nations what should be done about the former colony.

Independence was only advocated by the Soviet Union, whose weapons were later to try to crush it. The United States and Britain advocated federation with Ethiopia, and their view prevailed. A referendum showed that Eritreans were divided over independence or federation but within 10 years Haile Selassie eroded the Eritreans' separate powers and made Eritrea a province.

Eritreans appealed to the US, Britain and the UN but were ignored. The coastal strip along the Red Sea was of great strategic importance, and no superpower wanted it an independent country. Apart from occasional military supplies from Iraq in the mid-1980s and the constant support of Sudan, the Eritreans were on their own against the vast Russian-trained and supplied Ethiopian army. And when the Russians began to fade, they were replaced by the Israelis.

The Eritreans were not always united. The first national movement was the Eritrean Liberation Front. It was largely Muslim dominated and badly co-ordinated. The EPLF split away from it, and from 1972 to 1974 the two movements indulged in a fratricidal war. The EPLF included Muslims and Christians, though it is led by the Christian intelligensia. It emerged as the winner and set about creating a disciplined, highly motivated force that drew on Marxism-Leninism but always denied the label.

Because it was fighting a socialist state backed by the Soviet Union, the EPLF was shunned by the other 'liberation' movements in Africa. It was anathema to the Organisation of African Unity, it was regularly denounced by the African National Congress of South Africa, and when Mengistu finally fell he was given refuge by Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

None of this will be spoken of next month. Nor will the fact that the new government in Addis Ababa has allowed a province that includes its only ports to break away almost without discussion or negotiation.

Many years ago the EPLF realised that while it could battle successfully with the Ethiopian army in Eritrea, it needed allies in other parts of the country. So it helped set up and train a sister organisation in the neighbouring province, Tigray. The Tigrayan People's Liberation Front was in some ways a carbon copy but more Marxist-Leninist and it fought for autonomy for Tigray, not independence. The TPLF always supported the aims of the EPLF and the two leaders, Isias Aferwerke of the EPLF, and Meles Zenawi of the TPLF, were always close.

The TPLF proved equally successful, driving the Ethiopian army out of Tigray. It then formed the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Movement to give it a wider national base. Early in 1991 its guerrillas swept towards the capital and Mengistu fled. The sister movements marched into Addis Ababa and one of the first things President Meles announced was that Eritrea would be allowed to hold its referendum. A debt repaid.

COUNTRY PROFILE

Population: 3.2 million

Capital: Asmara

Religion: equally divided between Muslims and Christians

Lifestyle: 80% rural

Language groups: (9) Afar, Bilen, Hadareb, Kunama, Nara, Rashida, Saho, Tigre and Tigrinya

Agriculture: sorghum, livestock industry including camels and goats

Resources: Red Sea fishing, gold, copper, potash and iron ore

Exports: hides, salt, cement and Gum arabic

(Photograph omitted)

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