It's not the potholes or rotting faces that disconcert a person after a long absence from this city, which used to be known as Stanleyville.

Rather it's a sense of wonder that anything should have survived such studied neglect in a tropical rain forest climate where Joseph Conrad set "the inner station" in his classic sutyd of violence, "The Heart of Darkness."

The city's outward durability is an odd tribute to Belgian thoroughness to many years - 18 this month - after they relinquished their Congo colony. Doubtless it's a tribute that their builders of empire would have preferred to do without or at least not live to see.

So perhaps it's just as well the Zairians have removed the statues of Albert, king of the Belgians, whose earlier 20th Century world was one of industry, precision and no-nonsense colonialism.

Gone too is the glass-enclosed color photograph of Patrice Lumumba, that symbol of early black African independence and anti-Western rage judge dangerous enough to have him removed from power, then executed with Central Intelligence Agency help in 1961.

It was in front of his memorial in 1964 that the so-called Simba rebels who established the short-lived People's Republic of the Congo eviscerated their fellow African victims.

It was this city that gave the world a foretaste of last month's Kolwezi killings.

Belgian paratroopers transported by U.S. Air Force C130s freed more than 500 Americans and Belgians held hostage for 112 days in 1964 by the so-called People's Republic of the Congo.

Hundreds of Europeans of other nationalities escaped the rebel's radioed injunction proclaiming that "the white skin is our enemy - kill them all."

Thirty nine whites were killed in the Stanleyville fighting and more than a hundred died as hostilities swept across the Texas-sized surrounding province in the following week.

But black victims outnumbered whites in a proportion of 500-to-1 in a half year of widescale violence.

Those proportions tended to be overlooked then - as was also the case with the predominantly black death toll in Kolwezi.

For the outside world, only the white dead seemed to matter - much to the outrage of other Africans and much of the Third World.

Indeed, Stanleyville was invoked by South Africa as irrefutable proof that the white man had no place in independent black countries and by Rhodesia's Ian Smith to justify his unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1965.

At the time, many black African goverments denounced the rescue operations - viewed in their eyes as a devilish use of Western industrial might to humiliate an Africa only recently freed from foreign masters.

With Kolwezi, South Africa once again sought to stiffen the black of its white minority with horror stories of slaughtered whites.

But neither whites nor blacks here look at their own predicament in such simplistic terms.

Although both the Stanleyville and Kolwezi rescue operations ended up saving the government in power as well as threatened white lives, this time there was far less outraged voiced by black Africans.

Whites, once the initial panic passed sought reassurance in the knowledge that Zaire, desperately needs them. Hundreds of white women and children had hastened off on European vacations ahead of time when the trouble started.

The new element compared to the early 1960s is a growing feeling among Zairians - both the elite, and especially the average people - that whites hold the key to a better life.

"Many Zairians feel they have reached rock bottom," a Belgian said, "because of generalized corruption and the absence of food, medicine, gasoline, security, you name it."

Even university students, whose elders a decade ago were uniformly black power radicals, now appear openly split. Many advocate a massive return of whites, who are now down to some 30,000 - less than a third the number that ran what was once one of the most efficient and proseprous of colonies.

"We've come to realize after 18 years of independence that we have to start from square one to stop the mindlessness and corruption," a student leader said, "because the real exploiters turned out to be not so much the whites as our won black brothers."

For the more sensitive among the white residents, there is something chilling about such disenchantment among the young - especially their mouthing of generation-old right-wing European arguments blaming the United States for forcing independence on an ill-prepared Africa.

But it is not so much self hate as anger with the waste and negligence that has befallen this once bustling trading city now almost without cars because of a chronic shortage.

Gone are the days when cotton, rice and coffee arrived by road from rich agricultural hinterland for shipment on the Congo River to the faraway capital and to ships docked at Matadi port near the Atlantic.

Farm-to-market roads have washed away contractors refuse to work until the government pays enormous debts.

University laboratory and medical school equipment has been sold by ill-paid employees. Soldiers extort money from hapless citizens.

Portugese and Greek traders - whose general stores sold the kerosene, matches and cloth that motivated Zairian farmers to produce - have yet to return to the bush despite the now two-year-old government decision rescindling their expropriation.

Like much of the rest of Zaire, the city has all but gone back to bush an subsistence living. An estimated 40 percent of the city's 400,000 residents survive, according to studies, because of nearby truck gardens.

Yet, it is not for nothing that the army guards the brewery as well as the banks and the power dam outside town.

There is an odd belief that there will be no serious trouble while there is beer.

Even the recent theft of arms from the main army camp did not cause the kind of concern among whites or Zairians that might have been expected.

"It was the army itself. They want the arms to shoot elephants," an old European trader said. "Smuggled ivory is the best way to get rich quick now that the bottom has dropped out of the coffee market."