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Tuesday, 24 July, 2001, 15:51 GMT 16:51 UK
Ruined Bokassa palace haunts CAR
By Lucy Jones in the Central African Republic
The shimmering palace of Jean-Bedel Bokassa, former self-styled emperor of the Central African Republic (CAR), is in desperate need of repair.
His family has petitioned the government to lift a ban on displays of his property. It has also written to international tourist bodies to help restore the palace.
Bokassa was ousted from the palace when French troops stormed it in 1979.
The palace rises up like a mirage from a palm grove, 80 km from the capital Bangui, and rainwater floods the "imperial court's" secret underground quarters.
Piles of gold
The emperor's garish Italian bathroom tiles are chipped, while the gloomy kitchen - where chefs allegedly cooked the emperor's political rivals, often serving them to visiting foreign dignitaries - is now alive with rats.
The bedroom, where the former leader slept surrounded by piles of gold and diamonds, still bears the bullet holes of the French troops who stormed the palace.
The overgrown airstrip, glistening in the midday heat, is covered with sandbags.
However, all this may change. The late emperor's 62 children - once the elite of this country but now dressed in rags - live in outhouses in the palace grounds.
They are working with some government officials to get permission to turn the ruler's empty palace into a tourist attraction.
"We are very poor. The palace is all we've got left. We think people would be interested to know how the emperor lived," says Jean Mboma, a grandson of Bokassa.
The CAR attracts around 4,000 tourists a year. But a bloody coup attempt in May, the prevalence of banditry and inaccessibility of the country are likely to keep visitors away.
But some say not only foreign visitors can benefit from a Bokassa attraction, as Central Africans need to know their history, too.
"He is an important figure in the development of our country and also of the African continent. We need to preserve that history, whether it's good or bad," says Albertine Dounia, head of the national museum in Bangui.
However, opinion on the emperor is divided.
Some expatriates in this impoverished former French colony of 3.5 million recall his ruinous 14-year reign with fondness.
It was during this period that Bangui became known as "the coquette".
Clubbing of children
One diplomat said: "Things worked under Bokassa. The roads were good and the country was safe. The CAR at that time was Africa's best kept secret."
The former French President, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, regularly enjoyed hunting trips with Bokassa, while yacht owners used to queue to dock in Bangui's busy harbour, which today is empty.
Central Africans often cite the university, sports stadium and network of roads as achievements of the Bokassa era.
But not everybody remembers with nostalgia the ruler who ordered the clubbing of several children to death when they refused to buy his factory's uniforms. He also spent the equivalent of his country's gross national product on a Napoleonic coronation.
Residents of Kolongo, the location of one of Bokassa's many villas, say living next to the dictator was terrifying.
"My brother who was a teacher was walking home one night past the palace grounds. He was taken inside. We never saw him again. It was a frightening time," says Sima Fugaston. He makes a living selling the tall grasses that grow in the derelict dens of the lions the president once kept.
"He used to scoop up beggars in his plane and drop them into the Obangui river," recalls a university professor.
Exhibitions on Bokassa are outlawed in the CAR. The national museum in the capital Bangui omits him from its displays - although his gold-plated bed and pink thrones are stashed away in the basement. Pupils are taught virtually nothing of his reign.
"This is a sensitive subject. Any exhibition or restoration of Bokassa's properties needs to be done properly. This will take time," says Pierre N'Dickini, the director general of tourism.
But according to Constantin Ballangha, Bokassa's younger brother and former head of security, who today spends his days sweeping leaves from the palace grounds, money is not the only issue.
"Central Africans need to judge Bokassa for themselves. For too long we've been manipulated by the French. Opening the palace to the general public would be a start in allowing us to do this," he says.
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