The Ethiopian New Year was celebrated during the weekend, and for Ethiopian expatriates in the Washington area, the holiday, which also marked the 13th anniversary of the country's Marxist revolution, was charged with a mixture of joy and despair.

"It's a special feeling of anger on one hand at what the situation is in Ethiopia today and, with the New Year, there is hope," said Tedla, an Ethiopian expatriate who works for a local nonprofit organization. Tedla, who said he had been imprisoned and tortured by the military government, asked that his last name not be used for fear of retaliation against his family in Ethiopia.

Ethiopians, estimated to number between 15,000 and 20,000 in the Washington area, toasted the New Year with a party at the Capital Hilton Friday night and church services at local branches of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

About 40 expatriates, representing a coalition of Ethiopian political groups, staged a protest Friday outside the Ethiopian and Soviet embassies.

Habte Derbe, a 31-year-old market owner who lives in Alexandria, said he left Ethiopia nine years ago after being imprisoned three times while working as a director in a hunger relief agency there. "My father was a {resistance} fighter against the regime," Derbe recalled.

"They accused us of supporting my father and they put us in jail -- my mother, brother and two sisters. After nine months of prison, they killed my father in fighting." The family was then released, he said.

At a lecture and slide show about Ethiopia at Georgetown University Friday, Belai Gizaw, a local business consultant, questioned the Ethiopian government's motives for periodically releasing prisoners.

"The government had in the past a semblance of having released a lot of people but retained the real {political prisoners}," he said. "We hope that amnesty will be given." Human rights advocates have accused the Ethiopian government of holding thousands of political prisoners.

Many expatriates expressed hope that the holiday would lead to further prisoner releases that could reunite families, some split for more than a decade. A man who asked to be identified only as a professional who works in the District said that "people get very anxious around September 11th and 12th" here and in Ethiopia.

"There is a tremendous expectation in the country as a whole and {among} the prisoners," he said.

Bereket Selassie, a professor of law and politics at Howard University who held government posts in Ethiopia before the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie, pointed to efforts by Ethiopian expatriates from several ethnic groups, including Eritreans, Oromos and Amharas, to resolve differences that have long divided their nation.

"Despite the divisions in the country itself, the lack of hostilities here is remarkable," he said. "The Derg {Ethiopia's military ruling group} is a common enemy, the main factor for flight."