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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 May, 2003, 21:32 GMT 22:32 UK
Celebration hides discontent in Eritrea

By Peter Biles
BBC correspondent in Asmara

In carnival mood, tens of thousands of Eritreans partied into the early hours of Saturday to mark their country's 10th anniversary of independence.

Eritrean mother and child
Many families still wait for the fruits of independence
In the capital, Asmara, they thronged Liberation Avenue, the main street characterised by its palm trees and Italian-style cafes.

As popular Eritrean songs blared from loudspeakers, Asmara's well-heeled young set danced and war veterans in wheelchairs were pushed by their relatives or friends.

Shortly after midnight, Eritrea's President, Isaias Afewerki, appeared beneath an arch of flashing party lights.

Although he was flanked by bodyguards, police and soldiers, the atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed.

President Isaias, dressed in a blue safari suit and black sandals, set off to walk the entire length of Liberation Avenue.

He waved, often with both hands held aloft, while the crowds cleared the road to make way for him.

We cannot be complacent and relax our vigilance
President Isaias Afeworki

People cheered loudly and whistled, and the police beat back groups of excited young men who tried to close in on the rear of the presidential procession.

Few heads of state would have felt confident enough to have embarked upon such a public walk-about at night, but Eritrea has always been different.

President Isaias' appearance was all the more unusual because his government has attracted strong criticism in the last two years and his opponents say he now heads a repressive regime that lacks any genuine popular support.

However, there was no sign of that discontent as the residents of Asmara came out to celebrate the anniversary.

In fact, they seemed eager to thank the man who for many years, led the fighters of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front in their armed struggle for independence from Ethiopia.

In a young nation such as Eritrea, the strong sense of nationalism, forged from 30 years of conflict, cannot be over-emphasised.

Desperate to leave

As the father of the nation, Isaias Afewerki is still able to capitalise on that trust instilled in him, although his government is facing serious new challenges.

The country is having to deal with the impact of continuing drought.

In addition, the failure to demobilise 300,000 soldiers in the wake of the border war with Ethiopia, 1998-2000, has undoubtedly had a devastating impact on the economy.

Many young Eritreans are now reported to be desperate to leave the country in order to avoid national service.

Eritrea's relations with Ethiopia remain deeply strained.

Both sides say they are committed to the peace process, but there are outstanding issues to be resolved before the formal demarcation of the 1,000 km border can begin.

In the meantime, 4,000 UN peacekeepers are patrolling the 25km Temporary Security Zone between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

No elections

In an Independence Day speech in Asmara, President Isaias gave a clear warning of the current uncertainty.

"We find ourselves at a cross-roads between a war that has come to an end, but that appears unfinished," he told several thousand people at a colourful military parade and Eritrean cultural show.

"We cannot afford to be caught off-guard again. We cannot be complacent and relax our vigilance," said President Isaias.

In a BBC interview this week, the Eritrean leader said the recent war with Ethiopia had delayed and obstructed the process of nation-building and reconstruction.

He made no apology for the fact that elections planned for 2001, have still not been held.

On the fate of political dissidents and journalists who were detained during a government crackdown two years ago, Isaias said this was a national security issue which his government would deal with "in an appropriate manner".

In many respects, Eritrea remains a closed society where most people are guarded and reluctant to speak openly.

The public expressions of joy on this tenth anniversary were genuine enough, but they may reveal only part of the picture.

Horn border row worries UN
04 Apr 03  |  Africa
Country profile: Eritrea
05 Mar 03  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Eritrea
04 Mar 03  |  Country profiles

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