CONAKRY, Guinea – CONAKRY, Guinea (AP) — They've voted before — but never freely, and never fairly.
On Sunday, junta-ruled Guinea cast ballots for a new president in the first democratic election this West African nation has ever known. The poll caps an odyssey of repression and dictatorship spanning a half century that climaxed with a year of military rule so terrifying, people carved hiding places in their attics to avoid their own rampaging army.
It also breathes life into the hope — however tenuous — that a new generation of leaders may finally bring substantive change to a corruption-riddled country whose 10 million inhabitants rank among Africa's poorest despite sitting atop billions of dollars of mineral wealth.
"We have voted and we are FREE!" one man with tears in his eyes screamed at a red-bereted presidential guard outside the villa housing Gen. Sekouba Konate — the junta chief who steered Guinea toward elections after his predecessor was shot in the head and nearly killed in December.
"The military is now in their place and we are in ours. We are real citizens! We are free! Do you understand?" the man said, wagging his finger in the elite guard's face.
Sitting calmly on a motorcycle, the soldier replied quietly and nodded.
Just a few months ago — during the yearlong reign of exiled coup leader Capt. Moussa "Dadis" Camara — such a scene would never have happened. And if it had, the brazen civilian would have been brutally beaten or even executed.
Ruled as a one-party state after independence from France in 1958, Guinea suffered for 32 years under late strongman Lansana Conte. When he passed away in December 2008, Camara stepped into take his place — and turned out to be little better.
Last September, Guinea hit rock bottom when the military sealed off a Conakry stadium where thousands of protesters had rallied to insist Camara step down. In broad daylight, security forces burst through the gate and machine-gunned unarmed crowds, slaughtering more than 150 people, leaving bodies strewn across the field and draped over walls. They also wounded more than 1,000 and gang-raped women, some with rifle butts and bayonets.
The tragedy marked a new low in Guinea's history, but it also set the stage for unimaginable change. A United Nations investigation into the killings fueled tensions within the junta over who would take the blame, and on Dec. 3 Camara was shot in the head by his presidential guard chief, who has since disappeared.
Guinea has come a long way since.
After a peace deal neutralized Camara in Burkina Faso in January, Konate appointed a civilian prime minister and transitional governing council comprised of junta opponents. He marginalized Camara loyalists and imposed discipline on an army that had become accustomed to looting at will, breaking into private homes at night and hijacking even diplomatic vehicles in the streets.
Many of those who participated in the September protests are now helping run the country, or on the verge of doing so. Menacing soldiers have largely disappeared from the streets. And the U.S. is funding foreign security experts to retrain a new presidential guard; some members of the current force are among those blamed for orchestrating the stadium massacre.
Speaking Saturday, Konate called presidential hopefuls to the empty palace they hope to occupy and warned they must help avert violence and prevent the nation from backsliding into its dark past.
"We can no longer continue to live like we are in a jungle, as if we are in a state without authority," he said. "Too many Guineans have perished and suffered."
"Starting from now, it's up to you to make it happen," he said. The choice, he added, is between "peace, freedom and democracy, or chaos and instability."
With one of the largest reserves of bauxite in the world, as well as gold, diamonds and iron ore, Guinea should be rich. But it has been horribly governed — so much so that some neighborhoods in the squalid capital have been without water and electricity not for weeks or months, but years.
Heaps of stinking garbage fill cramped streets whose shantytown sidewalks are used to eat, wash and bathe. Guinea ranks 170 out of 182 nations on the U.N.'s Human Development Index, which measures general well-being. Transparency International puts it at 174 of 180 nations in terms of perceived corruption.
Conte, the late dictator, organized ballots in 1993, 1998 and 2003 — but they were all scams, a fact now acknowledged even by the military elite that secured them.
"In those elections, we all knew what the outcome would be before the vote," said Thierno Balde, who runs a local think tank that advocates democracy. "This time, nobody knows who will win. That's a very new thing for us."
Konate has won praise for barring himself, all members of the junta, and the transitional government, from running in the latest poll.
Among the top contenders are two ex-premiers, Cellou Dalein Diallo and Sidya Toure, and a longtime government opponent, Alpha Conde.
If no candidate wins a simple majority, a runoff between the top two finishers is due July 18.
Analysts say violence could break out if any of the losers fail to accept the results or contest them peacefully. Though campaigning was mostly smooth, a spate of clashes among party rivals Thursday left at least four dead and dozens injured north of Conakry.
Thousands of local and foreign observers are monitoring the poll.
Among the millions who traveled by bicycle, foot and wheelchair to vote Sunday was Ouma Kankou Diallo, a 39-year-old teacher.
"A lot of people said this would never happen," she said after slipping her ballot into a clear plastic urn at a seaside primary school within sight of the military barracks where Camara was shot. "But it has happened and we will forever be grateful. For us, this is a kind of dream."
Associated Press Writer Boubacar Diallo contributed to this report.