Independence Day E

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They rise before dawn, dressing and fetching water as the day's first lilac light seeps across the sky. As Dili wakes around them to a chorus of roosters, Jos and Dilia Amaral hurry through their morning chores. Today they have somewhere special to go. Today is Aug. 30, the day of East Timor's first democratic elections, and when the Amarals arrive at the local school soon after sunrise to vote, there's already a growing queue. "It's the start of something new," says Jos. The morning is humid and the wait will be long, but Jos is smiling. After all, this is a day unlike any other.

The crowd the Amarals join winds through the ruins of a house. Other ruins line the lane like broken teeth, reminders of what happened last time the East Timorese went to the polls. When a huge majority voted two years ago for independence from Indonesia, pro-Jakarta militiamen repaid them with a frenzy of destruction across the country. On referendum day, militia members whispered threats through frightened voting queues. "There were spies behind our backs," says Sister Carmelita Martins, who lives in the coastal village of Maubara, west of Dili. "We ran home after we had voted."

This time no one needed to run. There was no reported violence all day-people came calmly to vote for the 88-member constituent assembly that will write the nation's constitution and prepare the path to full independence. Some walked for hours from their villages. Women dressed as if for church, in traditional skirts and formal satin tops. Men crouched in groups, smoking and talking. Tiny girls in party dresses shaded themselves under umbrellas. Among them were those who, despite a concerted civic-education effort by the United Nations and aid agencies, don't yet fully understand the new order their vote will help create. At a polling center in Liquica, where a militia attack in April 1999 left hundreds dead or injured, Maria Isobel de Jesus says her family "wants only peace," but she doesn't know what a constitution is. Yet even the confusion did not stop the Timorese embracing the day-with enormous enthusiasm: early figures suggested more than 90% of the 421,000-strong electorate voted. A few polling centers stayed open several hours longer than scheduled to accommodate the huge crowds.

The poll marked the end of a political campaign alive with debates and rallies. And overwhelmingly peaceful, despite some reports of attempted coercion. Most expect the results, which will be announced by Sept. 10, to confirm a win by Fretilin, the veteran pro-independence party, which inspires deep loyalty among many East Timorese. After spearheading the bitter 24-year struggle against Indonesian occupation, Fretilin believes this is its hour. But the move to democracy has seen a flowering of political rivals. Only a handful of the 16 political parties that contested this election existed before Indonesia invaded in 1975; many are just a year old. And some, like Partido Democrtico, may yet chip away at Fretilin's vote. P.D. draws much of its support from young East Timorese attracted to a new generation of leaders like party president Fernando de Araujo, who was jailed for student activism in the 1990s. De Araujo says democracy in East Timor needs more than one strong party: "Not everyone involved in the struggle was with Fretilin."

In the heavy heat of election eve, workers continued laying floor tiles at the new National Council Hall, where the leaders of independent East Timor will sit under brightly colored traditional tais cloths. With little political experience, and a winding down of the U.N. and international presence that has overseen the reconstruction effort so far, they can expect massive tasks-and expectations. "Independence will mean nothing, and all the sacrifices and deaths and suffering will be in vain, if, in 10 to 15 years we do not improve a little the living conditions of our people," says Xanana Gusmo, the former resistance leader who looks certain to become his nation's first President. Is East Timor ready for self-government? After centuries of colonialism and repression, it's time, Gusmo says, for the country "to be making its own decisions, and its own mistakes."

Democracy is still young in East Timor, but on election day it passed its first test. By the time voting ended, the gold light of the day had slipped from the sky. Cooking smells floated on the air, people sat on street corners and radios played. Josè and Dilia Amaral put their children to bed. It was so peaceful in Dili that it seemed the events of the day were an ordinary part of life. Which, of course, is just the way it should be.