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Congolese Lake Town Recalls Despot Fondly

"There was not big development, but it was better than today," Joelle Badesire, 32, said as she watched a girls' volleyball game. "Under Mobutu, it was one country. It was not divided. You could go anywhere you want."

Another spectator, an energy company worker named Godefroid Marhegane, 54, said: "Mobutu did bad things, like bribery, corruption. We know that. We can't like a president like that."

Mobutu wears his traditional leopard-skin cap at a gathering of leaders in May 1997. He often traded the cap for a cowboy hat on visits to Goma. (Enric Marti -- AP)

But as Marhegane reflected a bit more, he recalled that many Congolese felt a new sense of dignity during Mobutu's reign. As president, Mobutu even renamed the country Zaire, contending that the word was more authentically African than Congo, as the country was known under Belgian colonial rule. After he was deposed, the name was changed twice and has now reverted to Congo.

"Even if people suffered under his rule, Marhegane concluded, "Mobutu was the best president because we were proud. Everywhere in the world, we were proud."

Prigogine, for one, remains proud of his connection to Mobutu, though it has won him no friends with subsequent governments. During one spate of civil war, he said, a bomb landed within 100 yards of his lavish lakeside house, and he suspects it was aimed at him and his family. Such things, he said, didn't happen under Mobutu.

"When you're alive," Prigogine said, "people start hating you. Once you're dead, the memories come back."

One telling Mobutu memory resurfaced as Prigogine retrieved a yellowed photograph of the two men together during one of the president's final visits to Goma.

They are standing together by a river in Virunga National Park. Prigogine is clad in a leopard-skin vest and a necklace made of lion's teeth. Mobutu is hatless and dressed in a button-down shirt and dark slacks. A bodyguard is holding an umbrella to shield Mobutu from the blazing equatorial sun.

On the president's face, shaded as ever behind thick Buddy Holly-style glasses, is a look both paternal and just a bit annoyed. The reason seems evident: Dangling from Prigogine's fishing rod is an enormous catfish, while Mobutu can be seen holding an empty pole.

On other occasions, Prigogine recounted, Mobutu made sure not to allow such unflattering comparisons. Even in informal fishing contests with family members, aides would join him in casting their lines into the water. The first to get a strike would quickly and surreptitiously hand the rod to Mobutu, with the hooked fish still swimming.

Then, said Prigogine, Mobutu would declare in triumph: "I caught the first fish!"

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