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Ethiopia Celebrates Start of New Millennium

Ethiopia is preparing to welcome the start of its 21st century at midnight with a national celebration. VOA's Peter Heinlein in the Ethiopian capital reports that a country that has known suffering and strife is taking a time out for a moment of national pride.

The party has started, and it promises to go on for days. Crowds of people have flooded the streets of Addis Ababa, greeting each other. This is the dawn of a new millennium in Ethiopia, and it is something special.

Ethiopia is feeling especially proud because it is unique. Ethiopians follow the Julian calendar, which is more than seven years behind the Gregorian calendar, which is observed in most of the Christian world. But there is also a feeling of hope, of a new beginning after centuries of hardship, famine, war and disease.

So far it has been a mixed success.

Ethiopians are hoping the celebrations might help to change the country's image as a poverty-stricken nation with an increasingly authoritarian government, poor human-rights record. Ethiopia also has thousands of troops stationed across the border in Somalia and tense relations with its northern neighbor Eritrea.

Moreover, several events planned to mark the new millennium have been canceled, either because of political disputes or security fears. A 10-kilometer Millennium Run, for which 35,000 people signed up, was scrapped - as was a big food festival.

On top of that, sharp increases in staple food prices in recent days have put a damper on the people's mood. And the expected flood of Ethiopian expatriates back to their homeland for the occasion has failed to materialize. Hotel and airline bookings are far below expectations.

Still, people on the streets are beaming. Ethiopian-born American citizen Bethlehem Hailu Dejene, 24, visits her native country each year as part of her doctoral studies in anthropology at Northwestern University in Chicago. She says this millennium celebration means more than the one she witnessed nearly eight years ago as a teenager in the United States.

"The Gregorian millennium was the thunder of the celebration was stolen because of all that Y 2 K business. We were anxiously waiting for planes to fall out of the sky, and all sorts of malfunctions to manifest themselves," she said. "But this one, people are proud. This is the one particular calendar, so it is our millennium. No one is sharing it with us. And secondly, people have started to see it as sort of an African millennium."

The biggest Millennium celebration is at a concert hall built especially for the occasion by a private donor. Those attending the elaborate bash include the heads of state of all Ethiopia's neighboring countries except Eritrea. The headline event is a concert by the American music group The Black Eyed Peas.

The cost of a ticket to that affair is more than $150, nearly twice the average salary in Ethiopia. So to make it accessible to the average person, the event is being broadcast nationwide. Sports Ministry official Eshetu Gossaye says big screen televisions have been set up in big stadiums and main squares all over the country.

"Almost in 10 cities in the country, we have a very big screen in the public gathering areas, so the public can gather and different big cities to celebrate this night together," said Gossaye.

Gossaye says the main stadium in Addis can hold more than 30,000 people for the evening.

Many people are just out in the streets, or at quiet celebrations with friends. Addis resident Getachew Morka, 27, says it is a time for people to put aside political and economic differences, and to celebrate being Ethiopian.

"Everybody is involved in this millennium, because the rich man is rich but the poor people just get happiness because of 2000 on the Ethiopian calendar. So its different from the other country," said Morka. "My calendar is different, my spiritual, so many things are different from other countries. So everybody's happy."

So the party has begun, despite forecasts of rain. It is just another issue Ethiopians live with this time of year. Many government offices are planning to be closed for several days, as Ethiopia marks the arrival of its own 21st century.