Twelve years ago the soldiers, armed with automatic weapons, went from hut to hut accompanied by youths carrying spears and knives. Bullets were seldom necessary. Instead, members of the majority Hutu tribe were systematically rounded up and stabbed with traditional weapons or battered by rocks.

For weeks Army trucks filled with mangled corpses rumbled through the streets of this capital beside glistening Lake Tanganyika. Their destination was a series of open mass graves on the city's outskirts where bulldozers waited to cover the daily harvest of the dead. No one knows for certain how many died -- perhaps 80,000, perhaps 150,000.

Today, the small landlocked country of Burundi is still trying to live down its reputation as Africa's tribal slaughterhouse following one of the most horrendous massacres of modern times.

The authoritarian government of Col. Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, which took power in 1976 in a quiet coup, is aggressively pushing a policy of ethnic reconciliation. It has abolished identity cards designating each Burundese by tribe, has established a new set of political institutions to supplant military rule and has held elections that, while hardly free, provide at least a semblance of choice where none existed before. There is also a new emphasis on education and rural development.

"We are opening doors here for everyone in this society," said Isidore Nyabora, the American-educated minister of public works and a close adviser to Bagaza, in an interview, noting that several Cabinet ministers and about one-third of the ruling party's Central Committee are Hutu.

But the legacy of 1972 dies hard. Officials here still refuse to acknowledge the reality of what happened a decade ago. And the minority Tutsi tribe, who constitute only 14 percent of the population, still dominate the 85 percent Hutu majority. Tutsis remain atop the pyramid of political, business and military power in what some critics describe as black Africa's equivalent of white minority-ruled South Africa.

"There is some freedom here but it stops well short of control by the majority of the fundamental levers of power," said a western diplomat. "They've come a long way but the memories of 1972 just can't be erased."

The tall, aristocratic Tutsis migrated to this area from Uganda and Ethiopia in the 17th century and quickly established a semifeudal empire over the Hutu peasantry, a system that survived German and later Belgian colonial rule.

When Burundi became independent in 1962, the country boasted two university graduates and a history of vicious ethnic conflict that independence only seemed to exacerbate. In 1972 Hutu dissidents killed nearly 1,000 Tutsis in an abortive attempt to overthrow the Tutsi-dominated government of Col. Michel Micombero. His Army responded with a sustained campaign of selective genocide, killing virtually every educated or prominent Hutu in Burundi.

The flamboyant, hard-drinking Micombero was overthrown four years later by Bagaza, and most of Micombero's associates were purged from government. The slaughter has become a taboo subject, neither discussed nor acknowledged publicly.

Nyabora called the events of 1972 "an unfortunate thing," but termed the death toll estimates "overexaggerated." The Micombero government, in a 1972 white paper that blamed most of the killings on rebels, estimated the deaths at between 50,000 and 80,000. A report by the International Commission of Jurists estimated 120,000 killed, while the U.S. State Department in 1978 said a toll of "100,000 to 150,000 appears probable."

"No one is asking for any apologies," Nyabora said, defending the government's silence on the matter. "People are asking for good policies for the future, not for excuses from the past."

But the past still echoes here. The United Nations says there are 250,000 refugees in Burundi -- almost 1 of every 17 inhabitants -- 90 percent of them Tutsis who fled neighboring Rwanda, scene of a more successful uprising by Hutus in the early 1960s. Similarly, the U.N. reports there are at least 168,000 Burundese refugees in nearby Tanzania and Zaire who escaped the 1972 slaughter.

In Burundi's 7,000-man military, considered one of Africa's best, 95 percent of the enlisted men and all of the officers are Tutsis.

Recent economic blows have wrecked the government's timetable for national progress in what is one of the world's poorest and most densely populated nations. The gross national product has stagnated for four years while government expenditures have risen about 10 percent annually, leaving the country with a growing debt.

Africa's killing drought, which sidestepped Burundi for three years, has now struck, and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization added the nation last month to its list of 28 African countries needing "exceptional food and rehabilitation assistance." The FAO says Burundi's harvest has fallen 30 percent short of last year's level and that the country needs 66,000 tons of food imports to see it through next year. So far food donors, distracted by other, more dramatic crises, have pledged only about 8,000.

Economic hardship has sharpened political divisions here and made the government increasingly sensitive to anything that looks remotely like a security threat.

Thus the government in September seized 45 American diplomatic pouches and refused to release them until the United States threatened to reduce the size of its embassy and, by implication, its $12 million per year aid program.

Burundese officials said the pouches were withheld because the volume of mail and freight was suspiciously large. Some security officials reportedly suggested the diplomats were smuggling arms to dissidents. American diplomats, some of whom believe the seizure was an isolated incident engineered by an overzealous security official, say the State Department is reconsidering the scope of the U.S. presence in Burundi.

Religious organizations have also come under fire. Worship is confined to weekends and the public display of crucifixes is banned in a country that is nearly 50 percent Roman Catholic. A half dozen Catholic priests were detained and later released earlier this year on suspicion of subversion. By one unofficial estimate, 106 Catholic priests have been forced to leave the country this year after their residence permits were not renewed.

The Seventh-Day Adventists have come in for particularly close scrutiny because their belief in Saturday as the sabbath directly conflicts with government requirements that peasants spend Saturday mornings working on public development projects. As a result, Adventist churches have been shut down in much of the countryside. Analysts here say the reasons for official hostility toward the church are the same as toward diplomats: suspicion of fomenting a Hutu rural rebellion.

Public Works Minister Nyabora puts it another way. "It's a question of who has the power -- he or me," he said. "Some of these priests continue to live in the past. They are very dogmatic and very inflexible and they don't want to adapt to the new situation here."

The irony, according to some analysts here, is that the Bagaza government has less to fear from the Hutu, who appear relatively docile and powerless, than from rival Tutsi clans. But some believe the government's confrontation tactics with the church could backfire.

Said one observer, "The Hutu are very quiet, but you can only kick a sleeping dog so often before he wakes up and bites you."