For most of the 200 people attending the two-day International Conference on Eritrea at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore hotel this weekend, the mountainous territory that borders the Red Sea in East Africa is not an academic pursuit. It is home.
Many of them are survivors of Africa's longest armed struggle, which began 28 years ago this month when the Ethiopian government of Emperor Haile Selassie ended a federation with the former Italian colony and forcibly annexed the culturally and historically distinct territory as its northern province.
Through the years, Eritrea, along with the rest of East Africa, has been visited by a series of disasters -- both natural and man-made -- ranging from civil war, famine, drought and disease to the displacement of millions of people, who have fled to sanctuary abroad as refugees.
Now almost three decades later, Eritrea stands within months, perhaps, of independence, in the form of a military victory over the Soviet-armed dictatorship that overthrew the emperor in 1974.
During the past two years, guerrillas of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) have won a series of battles against the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa, and have gained control over nearly all of Eritrea, including the ports of Assab and Massawa.
It is a military reversal in the face of a $4 billion airlift of Soviet arms to Ethiopia's military government, in which a smaller, largely self-sufficient guerrilla force has outlasted a larger foe in a bloody war of attrition.
According to international observers, all that stands between the EPLF guerrillas and a complete military victory is the sole remaining government garrison at Asmara, the provincial capital, where a force of 100,000 largely young Ethiopian forced-conscripts are dependent on airlifted supplies.
Guerrilla forces have encircled Asmara and have had the garrison under siege since late spring.
"Clearly, the past year and year and a half, there has been tremendous success militarily," said conference coordinator Afewerki A. Mascio, an Eritrean academic at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "And at this juncture, one can say that independence is at hand. There is no question about that now. Eritreans must now be given the opportunity to decide their own future."
International recognition of the Eritrean problem, long defined as Ethiopian internal dispute, was a major topic of discussion at the conference.
"The United Nations has avoided its responsibility," said Roy Pateman, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, who has written extensively on Eritrea. "The U.N. guarantees the right of self-determination to people under colonialism and foreign dominations. Eritrea should be the responsibility of the United Nations as long as its claim has not been heard."
Former President Jimmy Carter has been attempting to find a diplomatic solution in Eritrea for some time and hosted preliminary discussions between the EPLF and the Ethiopian government in Atlanta earlier this year.
While the recent flurry of diplomatic activity has given Eritreans reason to be optimistic, Bereket Habte-Selassie, EPLF representative to the United Nations, now feels that military developments have overtaken negotiations.
"It is likely that the struggle will end on the battlefield first," said Mr. Selassie, a Howard University academic. "The whole world, including the United States, has come close to the recognition of Eritrean self-determination, that a peaceful settlement must involve the right of Eritreans to determine their own future."
Negotiations, which have been closely monitored by the Bush administration and the Soviet Union, are currently at an impasse. But Moscow, which is scaling back its international commitments in the face of its own internal problems, has urged Ethiopian head of state Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam to seek a diplomatic solution.
A political settlement hinges on whether the Ethiopian government will agree to an internationally supervised referendum for Eritrea, which would determine whether it would become independent or remain politically associated with Ethiopia. The consensus among many observers is that the results of the referendum would strongly favor outright independence.
If military victory occurs before a diplomatic agreement, the move toward a national referendum in Eritrea will continue, Gebre H. Testagiorgis, a University of Wisconsin professor, told the conference.
He said it was essential to gaining widespread international recognition for Eritrea as an independent nation.
"Reality demands it [a referendum]," said Mr. Testagiorgis. "The international community demands that. It is through a referendum that the international community cannot ignore the will of the Eritrean people."