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Taci tolo is a place steeped in troubled memories for the people of East Timor. In a still lake nearby, locals say, Indonesian soldiers used to dump bodies. At Taci Tolo itself, Pope John Paul II celebrated an open-air Mass during his historic visit in 1989. Though fearful of their Indonesian rulers, about 100,000 people turned up for the service, among them protesters who risked their lives to unfurl banners pleading for help in their fight for freedom. It's fitting, then, that on May 20 the East Timorese will finally claim nationhood at this stretch of land on the outskirts of Dili.

The independence ceremony, the climax of a month of celebrations costing $1.7 million, is the end of a long journey of struggle and sacrifice by East Timor's 850,000 people. Their 1999 vote for independence, after 24 years of military occupation, sparked a massive campaign of destruction and violence by Indonesian-backed militias. But it also ushered in freedom and, after elections last year, East Timorese now have the trappings of a nation-from a constitution and a national Parliament to their own stamps and police force.

They also have a hugely popular president-elect, the former resistance leader Xanana Gusm‹o, who will be sworn in just after independence is declared at midnight. There to celebrate with a crowd of up to 200,000 jubilant East Timorese will be U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, as well as more than 600 representatives of 92 countries-including Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and former U.S. President Bill Clinton-and around 300 foreign journalists. Squeezing them all into the small capital has been a mighty task, says Gino Favaro, owner of the 25-room Hotel Dili: "We were asked if we had 10 rooms today-we don't even have a matchbox available." His hotel, like others, has been booked out for months. A 114-room floating hotel has been brought in for foreign dignitaries; Dili's small contingent of hire-car companies, restaurants and interpreters has been swamped.

It's the sort of international attention that East Timor doesn't want to lose, for when the fireworks are over, it faces a difficult future. Last week a U.N. Development Programme report confirmed that East Timor will start life as Asia's poorest nation. Despite hefty pledges of aid, it will have to work wisely to convert the cash and goodwill into real progress. But after centuries of colonial and military rule, at least the East Timorese can now make such choices for themselves.

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