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Tuesday, October 13, 1998 Published at 12:21 GMT 13:21 UK

Behind the lines

Congolese soldiers - fighting for and against President Kabila

Chris Simpson reports from Kigali

Goma, in the far east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, close by the frontier with neighbouring Rwanda, has been the centre of two recent insurrections.

One that brought in Laurent Kabila as president less than 18 month ago, and now another, to topple him.

[ image: Goma - camp for Rwandan refugees]
Goma - camp for Rwandan refugees
I first visited Goma in June this year, going into Congo with a couple of Rwandan friends. It was not a successful trip, soured by a run-in with traffic police and the $66 demanded for a visa.

But by way of a sweetener at the border, I was given a complimentary copy of a pamphlet by Laurent Kabila entitled Shipwreck of the Democratic Process in which the Congolese leader meditated on the "moral defeat" of his people.

A few weeks later, I was back, part of an expectant press corps, wanting access to the rebellion in the east of Congo.

Less than two years earlier Goma had been the launch-pad for Kabila's own push for power, with local Congolese Tutsis, or Banyamulenge, at the forefront of the revolt. Now Kabila was the target, with many of the same Banyamulenge soldiers denouncing him as a despot and a racist.

[ image: Laurent Kabila - now he is the target]
Laurent Kabila - now he is the target
At this stage little was known about the new rebels, but there were already strong suspicions that strings were being pulled from outside.

Uganda and Rwanda, both instrumental in bringing Kabila to power in the first place, had fallen out with their former protege and were thought quite capable of engineering his removal.

Sitting in a local bank, visiting reporters were berated for such suggestions by a collection of eloquent dissidents. Congo had got rid of the great kleptocrat Mobutu only to find an intemperate warlord in his place, we were told. Hence the call to arms.

A quick march on Kinsasha

At a lakeside villa, a supremely confident military commander posed for the cameras and promised a quick march on the capital Kinshasa. A group of young soldiers waited outside, all sunglasses and beery bravado, demonstrating how they would dismember Kabila once they got into the presidential palace.

It was a good start but things soon became more complicated.

The rebels lost their early momentum as troops from Zimbabwe and Angola poured in to help the enemy. Peace initiatives foundered, while Kabila was vilified for embarking on a vicious campaign against Tutsis inside Congo.

Now the rebels are back on the offensive, confident victory can be secured, albeit later than intended.

Goma: Centre of rebellion

Throughout all this, Goma has remained the rebellion's main headquarters.

It is here the leadership of the Rally for Congolese Democracy, or RCD, convenes for internal consultations, while also receiving visiting dignitaries curious to meet this govenment-in-waiting. It is here news from the front is relayed.

Mindful of the way Laurent Kabila hijacked the last great insurrection, the RCD has avoided personality cults, relying instead on an inner circle of luminaries, who shuttle back and forth, offering briefings in person or by cellular phone. A distinguished academic provides political gravitas; the military man talks of targets and battle plans.

Life behind rebel lines

Reporting from behind rebel lines suggests a life lived on the edge, with the constant threat of enemy shellfire and late-night campfire discussions on revolutionary strategy.

But not in Goma. There are trips to newly-liberated towns, but the front has normally moved off well down the road. Sometimes journalistic missions are laid on simply to counter propaganda from the enemy.

I spent four hours on the tarmac at one airstrip simply so I could be shown that there had been no bombardment as announced by Laurent Kabila.

The RCD can probably be forgiven this kind of genial manipulation; military information rarely comes for free. More troublesome, at least in Goma, is the sharp difference between the rebels' stated mission of liberation and the way they are seen by the people they claim to represent.

The public's verdict

You canvas opinions cautiously. Locals warn that public criticism of the rebellion invites problems, but there is still little charity in their overall verdict.

Sometimes you come up against ugly anti-Tutsi invective, with talk of a foreign invasion. But more often there is just a simple tiredness, a feeling that this is one rebellion too many.

The late, not very lamented President Mobutu used to tell his people they were lucky to have him, hinting that once he departed, his country would disintegrate as warring mediocrities battled for position. Laurent Kabila would seem to fit into that category. The RCD's pedigree would appear to be more honourable.

But in Goma, people talk with contempt of another wave of political hopefuls, whose nobility of purpose offers little consolation for the influx of teenage soldiers that come with them, the disruption of trade and traffic, and the wretched uncertainties of being at war again.

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