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Ethiopia Faces New Millennium, Uncertain of Future

As Ethiopia ushers in a new millennium according to its unique calendar, many Ethiopians are concerned about the direction the country is taking. Opposition politicians claim they are denied freedom of expression, and aid workers raise concerns about instability and human rights. Cathy Majtenyi recently visited Ethiopia and files this report for VOA.

The capital, Addis Ababa, buzzed with excitement in the early hours of September 12th as Ethiopians rang in the year 2000 based on the country's calendar.

But behind the gaiety, many in this Horn of Africa nation of 81 million are worried about the present and the future.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his government are under fire for elections held two years ago. During and after election time, government forces arrested and jailed thousands of opposition supporters, journalists, activists and others.

Hailu Shawel is chairman of the country's main opposition party, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, or CUD.

Hailu's colleagues celebrated the new millennium in the United States to protest what they say is a serious lack of democracy in Ethiopia. They only recently were released from prison in Ethiopia. Hailu says, "At the moment, we can't even call a meeting because CUD's legality has been usurped. We are not legal so we can't call meetings, we can't call demonstrations, we can't call any discussions with the people. As far as CUD is concerned, the democratic process is at a standstill."

But Netsannet Asfaw, the deputy director of the government's millennium committee, disagrees. She says the constitution guarantees all Ethiopians the right to organize, assemble and express themselves.

She says opposition officials were jailed during the elections because they instigated violence. "There was a lot of wrongdoing, as I said before. What started as a wonderful exercise in democracy was tarnished, and they were calling for that kind of tarnishing."

The Ethiopian government is also under fire for instability in the country's Ogaden region, where human rights groups report that civilians are being caught up, and in some cases, targeted in the fighting between the army and rebels.

Loris de Filippi is operational director for Ethiopia with the medical aid agency Doctors Without Borders.

De Filippi says that during a mission to Ogaden in August, soldiers told his team that the area was too insecure and prevented the aid workers from delivering much-needed supplies.

In early September, de Filippi urged the Ethiopian government to open up the area to aid workers. "The international humanitarian law asks and says clearly, in non-international armed conflict that a government should provide assistance to the people and should facilitate the work of the humanitarian aid."

Millennium committee spokesman Mulugeta Aserate says it is the Ethiopian government's right to restrict non-government organizations' access to volatile areas.

Asfaw says, "The government knows the security on the ground better than the NGOs. There are some NGOs who, under the veil of humanitarian aid, happen to be doing the opposite."

As they enter the next thousand years, all sides agree that much needs to be done to tackle these and other challenges and to change the outside world's perception that Ethiopia is a land of suffering.