KUTAMA, Zimbabwe - The civil war was over, and people watched with pride and disbelief as the British flag was lowered over Rhodesia's capital, marking the end of 90 years of white colonial rule.
It was 1980. Their Southern African nation had a new flag, a new name - Zimbabwe - and its first black leader, who on a sunny June day returned triumphantly to this village of his birth.
The man the villagers welcomed home was Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
Held aloft by a crowd of cheering schoolboys, he cut a commanding figure. Mugabe, dressed impeccably, as always, in a suit and tie, balanced himself atop the plywood platform, arms by his side, his head cocked forward as if he were posing for a sculptor.
At 56, the former freedom fighter turned prime minister garnered praise worldwide for preaching a gospel of racial reconciliation after years of struggle in the fight for independence. His eyes, framed by his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, looked straight ahead, stern and proud, at the hundreds of people gathered to greet him not only as their new leader, but as much more - a savior.
"We could never believe there would ever be such a day," recalled George Kahari, a longtime friend of Mugabe's who stood among the jubilant villagers 22 years ago. "We were all feeling high. We were very proud of him. We all believed he was going to take this country out of colonialism into a new era."
But after more than two decades in power, Mugabe, now president, is steering his country into ruin and racial division, not riches and reconciliation. The man who once calmed the fears of whites, persuading nervous families to unpack their bags and stay to build a nation, now stirs racial hatred and lashes out at enemies real and imagined: political foes, the British, gays, the West and, most of all, the country's 50,000 whites.
In the past two years, in the name of land reform, he has sent veterans of the liberation war and party supporters into the countryside to seize thousands of white-owned commercial farms. Bands of Mugabe's henchmen have beaten up and killed white farmers, black farm workers and supporters of opposition parties. Human rights groups say dozens of people have died in political violence.
Mugabe says he is correcting the imbalances of the colonial era and defending his nation against an opposition party controlled by "white imperialists" and the British. Critics say his actions are those of a desperate man looking to win political support as his popularity dwindles. In a last-ditch effort to stay in power, he seems intent on turning the clock back, hoping to rekindle the passions of his days as a guerrilla fighter.
At age 77, Mugabe is up for election March 10, and for the first time in his long political career he faces a formidable challenger, former labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Nearly three decades younger than his opponent, Tsvangirai represents all that is dangerous to Mugabe: a new generation of urban Zimbabweans frustrated with the government's economic mismanagement and corruption and far more concerned about finding jobs than about a liberation war that occurred before many of them were born.
In June 2000, Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change stunned the government by winning nearly half of the parliamentary seats up for election.
Polls indicate that Mugabe is likely to lose the election if it is free and fair. But even his opponents say Mugabe is still a scrappy fighter. He has muzzled the news media, made it a crime to criticize his government and banned election observers except those of his choosing.
According to the Associated Press, the government forced Europe's top election observer to leave the country yesterday, further raising tensions.
"We have geared up for a last stand," said Kahari, a longtime supporter and a former ambassador to Germany and other countries. "Both inside and outside Zimbabwe, we have no friends. We fight everybody along the road. Hitler once did the same thing. He was fighting everybody and lost."
If Zimbabwe's economy collapses, or, worse, if the election sparks widespread violence, the country could pull down the rest of Southern Africa with it. Regional leaders fear thousands of refugees would pour out of the country. South Africa is making preparations for a refugee camp near its border with Zimbabwe.
The year he became prime minister, Mugabe was celebrated as a liberator and near-saint, much as South Africa's Nelson Mandela is today. During his first decade in power, he began an ambitious program to bring schools and hospitals to the millions of poor black peasants in the countryside and improve blacks' wages and social conditions.
Now, Mugabe rails against his growing list of enemies, shaking his clenched fist and earning a reputation as of one of Africa's last corrupt "big men."