Moiche Apolinar's thin face broke into a broad grin as he savored the peals of long-silenced church bells in this otherwise peculiarly silent capital city.
Before the bells interrupted, Apolinar, a former Cabinet minister recently freed from jail, had been checking off a grisly decade-long list of mass executions, arbitrary jailings and life in forced labor camps under deposed dictator Masie Nguema Biyogo Negue Ndong, who was overthrown in a bloody military coup two weeks ago. Just over a year ago, every church and Mosque in this tiny West African country was ordered closed.
"All the priests were in jail," said Apolinar, as he walked along littered and shuttered Independence Avenue, the island capital's main street. "I don't know why [Masie Nguema] ordered them closed. One did not ask questions under his regime."
The tolling of the bells, said Apolinar, was a sign of "hope for the future" under Equatorial Guinea's new strong man, Lt. Col. Teodoro Obiang Nguema, a nephew of the fallen "president for life."
Malabo's six churches and two mosques have been reopened, but the city remains an underpopulated skeleton of the gay capital where independence was celebrated in 1968.
Masie Nguema disappeared following several days of fighting between his nephew's troops and the ousted ruler's personal bodyguards in the country's mainland province of Rio Muni.
[Spanish national radio reported Masie Nguema was captured today near his home village, Mengoma. The Madrid broadcast, citing reports from military officials in Equatorial Guinea, said he was alone when captured and offered no resistance. There was no direct confirmation of the report.]
The country's mainland provincial capital, Bata, is calm but jittery, said one information official.
"They want to see [Masie Nguema's] body" before they believe his harsh rule is over, he said.
After coming to power in U.N.-supervised elections at independence in 1968, Masie Nguema gradually withdrew his once prosperous country from the contact with the outside world and introduced a brutal tyranny that matched the more notorious regime of recently deposed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
Annual cocoa exports, the country's main revenue earner, dropped from 50,000 tons a decade ago to less than 5,000 tons today.
An estimated one-third of the country's population, including almost all of it's tiny educated elite, fled into exile in neighboring Cameroon, Gabon and Nigeria, or to Europe. Thousands of those who stayed were forced to work in labor camps, were arbitrarily arrested or were summarily executed by having their skulls crushed with iron bars.
The International Commission of Jurists estimated 40,000 persons had been pressed into forced labor on the country's cocoa and coffee plantations. But cocoa production still plummeted after 20,000 Nigerian laborers left following a 1976 demonstration protesting conditions here. Eleven protesters were killed by Masie Nguema's militia.
His opponents claimed that more than 50,000 Equatorial Guineans, including members of his dominant Fang tribe, and his family, were killed during Masie Nguema's reign.
A low-level clerk under Spanish rule, Masie Nguema persecuted educated Guineans for bringing "imperialist neocolonialist ideas into the country."
Before his ouster, France was the only Western country that maintained diplomatic relations with his government. The United States and Spain broke relations several years ago. But Masie Nguema had enjoyed the diplomatic support of the Soviet Union, Cuba, China and North Korea.
Through a combination of capricious oppression and leftist rhetoric, Masie Nguema held his terrified countrymen in abject bondage.
"The terror began early," said Apolinar, a former minister of industry and mines when the country first achieved independence. "He seemed to think everyone was plotting against him."
Apolinar, who was released from Malabo's infamous Blaebich prison the day after the coup, had been arrested by policemen at his home on the night of March 22. He said policemen had come to his house earlier that evening and asked him about one of his neighbor's political activities.
"When I told them I did not know anything," he said, "They told me they would come back later for me. And they did."
While he was in jail, his family brought him food. There was none served at the jail. Every day he was driven out to cut shrubs at the small airport that services the capital. He said he was never told what his crime was an never asked.
"I did not want to draw attention to myself," he said.
"No one, no one here today, does not know a friend, a brother, a sister or father who was not killed by him," Apolinar said. "At night, I could hear the screams of the people [in the prison] being beaten to death," he said. I thought it was the end of the line for me."
Apolinar, a graduate of Switzerland's Fribourg University, had returned to Equatorial Guinea from Europe in 1968 at the age of 26, "with great hope for my country."
He was appointed by Masie Nguema to the Industry and Mines Department and dismissed five years later.
"He never told me why and I did not ask," Apolinar said. "I was lucky not to have been killed rather than just dismissed."
Riots between the dominant Fang tribe and the minority Bubis broke out in 1969. Masie Nguema accused Spanish timber merchants of being behind the disturbances and expelled the Spanish military garrison.
The expulsion of the token Spanish force was followed by the executions and imprisonment of government ministers, senior military and police officers, priests, students and civil servants.
Atansio Ndongo, a foreign minister, was killed when Masie Nguema ordered him trown from the third-floor window of the presidential palace. Spanish Bishop Gomez Marijuan was expelled for opposing government policies.
In 1975, all priests and nuns in the mainland province of Rio Muni were arrested for refusing to praise Masie Nguema during religious services. He even wrote a hymn to be sung in churches, part of which read: "God has created Equatorial Guinea through the will of Papa Masie. Without him Equatorial Guinea would not exist."
During Christmas celebrations the same year, Masie Nguema had his Soviet-armed militia shoot or hang 150 alleged political opponents in the Malabo stadium as loudspeakers played the record "Those Were the Days, My Friend."
A flattering likeness of Masie Nguema is printed on all of Equatorial Guinea's currency, called the ekpwele, but still bears his old name -- Marcias. He changed his name in 1976.
An abortive coup attempt in 1976 spurred Masie Nguema to retire to his mainland home village of Mongomo just west of Guinea's border with Gabon. He shut down all government offices in the capital Malabo and moved the national treasury of $60 million to a wooden hut in his village.
Day-to-day government operations were left in the hands of his nephew, Teodoro Nguema, the man who overthrew him on Aug. 4.
One Guinean source said Teodoro Nguema overthrew his uncle because the ex-president had killed Teodoro's brother in a recent purge of his private guard.
Antonio Ondo, an official of a Guinean exile group in Spain, recently charged that Teodoro Nguema acted as his uncle's executioner and perpetuated the latter's tyranny before he overthrew him.
Teodoro Nguema has said he will respect human rights and has released the thousands of political prisoners from the country's jails and labor camps.
In the massive, crumbling, Spanish-style central post office -- the only government office still open in central Malabo -- a clerk was busy pasting a color glossy photograph of Teodoro Nguema to a picture frame. Masie Nguema's black and white photograph lay on the floor at his feet.
A pile of moldy sheets of stamps, with Masie Nguema's portrait, were piled on his desk. A visitor asked why he had so many unsold stamps.
"Senor," the clerk responded with exasperation as he looked up from Teodoro Nguema's photograph, "under this man's uncle anyone who bought stamps to mail letters anywhere was suspected of subversion." He then carefully hung the new ruler's picture on the wall behind his desk.
"We have a long way to go in reconstruction," said Apolinar outside the barred and padlocked Biblioteca Publica High School. Apolinar was one of the first Africans to attend the high school in 1956.
"We had so little and now there is less," he said, as his eyes swept over the closed buildings and empty stores up and down Independence Avenue. Stacked in front of the bare shelves of one empty store were boxes marked "refined salt" from China.
At Malabo's decaying Hotel Bahia, three youths were cleaning out the accumulated slime and grit at the bottom of the unused kidney-shaped pool, in anticipation of an influx of visitors. A spartan mean of fried plantations, rice and fish cost $25.
"This fish is called chicarro and this is what the Russians bring to us," said a disgusted Apolinar.
"Arms, the armored car you saw at the airport, and fish is all they've brought us."
In the first flush of excitement after the coup, Guineans publicly booed Soviet diplomats. Teodoro Nguema has said, however, that his government will maintain its present diplomatic ties and seek to review old ones.
An unknown number of his uncle's supporters who have been jailed, will be tried in the near future, he said, but it is unclear what charges they will be tried for.
He has also invited all Guineans living in exile to return, but few, have responded as yet.
Teodoro Nguema has remained vague on a timetable for a return to Guinea's short-lived democracy.
"We intend to begin a gradual process to reestablish democracy," he said. "We can add that we are not in a hurry."