It was sunrise on Jan. 20. The day began normally for Albert Nguida, as he walked to work through the gray, twisting dirt paths of Bangui's mud-and-thatch Kilometre Cinq slum.
Fifteen minutes later, he knelt, wracked by uncontrollable sobs, over the prostrate body of his 12-year-old son, Belge, who was shot in the back by then-emperor Bokassa's Imperial Guard.
"When I reached" the Avenue de France, Nguida recalled, "the military told me, 'Go back home, old man. There is no work today. We're looking for the children who have caused all the trouble.'"
Nguida, 57, rushed home to warn his 10 children to stay in the house. Sounds of gunfire erupted behind him.
As he reached the muddy alley leading to his home, children ran up to him to say Belge had been shot. The laborer wiped a calloused palm across his tear-filled eyes at the painful memory. Two boys guided him to the spot behind the Amical Bar where his son lay.
"Belge was lying on his back, his intestines pushed out from his stomach," Nguida said. His daughter, Josephine, 22, who had sat quietly next to him as he talked, also began to cry.
"It was too late. He was dead," Nguida said. "They had used a machine gun."
For three days running, Bokassa's Imperial Guard -- all members of the despot's M'Baka tribe -- and the Army invaded neighborhoods of Bangui, selectively shooting demonstrating children and unwary adults as well.
The youth protest had been sparked by the now-deposed emperor's royal decree that all students -- from elementary school to those attending Jean-Bedel Bokassa University -- must buy uniforms or they would not be admitted to classes. The material for the uniforms was controlled by the empress, Catherine Dengueade Bokassa, the emperor's wife and grand-niece.
The slaughter was followed by a simmering silence. Students and teachers boycotted classes. Apathetic adults began to hate.
"Before then, I was apathetic," said Dieudonne Baga, 27, an American-trained English teacher. "But still, all we could do was hate and wait."
Bokassa, who reportedly pocketed two months of every three-month government payroll, began paying salaries each month after January and gave the country's civil servants a 20 percent pay raise. University students on scholarship also received an increase in their stipend and the uniform decree was retracted.
But the continuing boycott of schools was too much. In April, Bokassa's soldiers indiscriminately rounded up school-aged children. The soldiers clubbed some of them senseless and killed at least 100 in the infamous Ngaragba Prison for political prisoners. Bokassa has been implicated directly in some of the children's deaths.
Bokassa, a former sergeant in the French Army and the French-selected Army chief of staff when this country gained independence 19 years ago, came to power in an Army coup that overthrew his cousin David Dacko's elected government in 1965.
On Sept. 20, Dacko flew to Bangui behind French paratroopers and overthrew Bokassa while the emperor was in Libya seeking financial assistance.
Cheered as a redeemer by Central Africans when he took power, Bokassa gradually enforced a nightmarish government on the educated elite of Bangui while he let the rural peasant population of close to 2 million slide into isolation.
Bokassa announced that he had taken power to wipe out the rampant corruption in his cousin's government and ended up emptying the nation's coffers while he indulged in drunken, brutal rages reportedly fueled by four fifths of scotch a day.
Central Africa was poor at independence, but under Bokassa's reign it deteriorated into 13 years of economic decline while he spent lavishly on himself, Catherine and his multitude of consorts. What roads existed outside Bangui in 1960 are grassless gullies today. Average per capita income in 1976 was $177.
Signs of Bokassa's apparent paranoia were already evident in 1969, when Bokassa had his deputy and fellow coup-plotter, Col. Alexandre Banza executed for an alleged plot against him.
Private indications of these supicions had appeared even before the coup, according to Bokassa's grandnephew, Catherine's brother, Florent Dengueade, 33.
Dengueade, a former prince of Bokassa's insolvent empire, had to be interviewed at the edge of Bangui as angry Central Africans have threatened to kill him.
"My sister and I were living with him before the coup," Dengueade said, describing a period in 1964. "One day when I was returning from school he shouted at me that I had been in touch with [then-president] Dacko," Dengueade said.
"I told him it was not true, but he told me to shut up, that several people had told him that I was telling Dacko what went on in his house," Dengueade added. Later, Dengueade, who claims he knew nothing of Bokassa's impending coup, said he left Bokassa's house because "he continued to accuse me of plotting against him."
As Central Africa's economy worsened, crime began to rise and Bokassa displayed his brutal side.
One day in 1972, burglars broke into Bokassa's house, according to schoolteacher Baga, and stole his Mercedes' tires and a radio from his bedside.
"He was enraged," Baga said. "He went to the prison and beat prisoners to death and gouged out their eyes the next day." About 100 of the beaten men -- several still alive with brains protruding from crushed skulls -- were brought to the circular town square and laid out "as an example," according to Baga.
Bokassa then announced that in the future thieves would have their right ear cut off for the first offense, then the left ear, then the right hand and, on the fourth apprehension, the left hand.
"You can still see some people around here without ears," Baga said. "They used to cut them off with scissors."
While Bokassa's rule was brutal, independent observers and Central Africans caution against the easy comparison to two of Africa's recently deposed despots, Uganda's Idi Amin and Equatorial Guinea's Masie Nguema Biyogo Negue Ndong. Amin, who is charged with thousands of deaths, reportedly is in exile in Libya and Masie Nguema was convicted of genocide Saturday and reportedly executed.
There are similarities, however. One is that each was placed in positions of power by outgoing colonial governments, more for loyalty to their departing colonial superiors than for their own intellect. Furthermore, each exhibited an erratic love-hate relationship with the former colonial powers -- Bokassa toward the French, Amin toward the British and Masie Nguema toward the Spanish.
"I don't buy the absolute comparison of Bokassa to Amin" and Masie Nguema, said one Western diplomat who saw Bokassa in June, "He was erratic and conceited, but he wanted to be loved."
Bokassa, who called Charles de Gaulle "Papa" and idolized Napoleon Bonaparte, felt that "he was following the old traditions of French colonialism," the diplomat said. "He also lived in the African past."
A minor chief of the M'Baka tribe, Bokassa thought it was his due to take a lot of wives. "He thought of himself as a strict, fatherly authoritarian," the diplomat said.
"When I saw him in June," he added, "he was almost pathetic, bewildered. He didn't understand what had happened. He used to cry a lot."
Death, torture, informant and secret police operations under Bokassa were widespread but sloppy and not systematic, sources here said.
Kaza-Ngoy Lumbamba, 36, a chemical engineer, was arrested on Aug. 7, the day after he casually mentioned at a friend's party that he supported the exiled opposition that was trying to overthrow Bokassa. "A friend" of his, he said, informed on him.
Inside Ngaragba Prison, he was put behind the "red door," where political prisoners were kept. Meals were provided every four days and no communication was allowed "or you would go on safari when the lights went out," he said. Safari was a prison euphemism for execution, when the guards came to get you from your cell.
His first night there, he said, he watched businessman Musuale Tshipoy being clubbed to death in the prison courtyard by two Army and police captains.
"Tshipoy had a lot of money," said Lumbamba." So Bokassa accused him of spying and then confiscated the money."
"I was sure I was a dead man," he added. "It's only thanks to Dacko and France, that I am alive." Lumbamba was released five days after the French paratroopers arrived.
Another prisoner, Marc Boysembe Nditifei, 40, said he had given up working against Bokassa from Paris. He was arrested two days after he returned. He said he escaped being tortured, but was questioned day and night.
Now, however, Nditifei has taken up another cause.
"I am going to work among the people to raise the national consciousness against French imperialism," he said. "They have imposed this government on us."