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Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK

Congo's most curious town

President Mobutu's now-derelict palaces dominate the town

BBC Uganda Correspondent Anna Borzello visits Gbadolite: The opulent former home of the late President Mobutu Sese Seko, which has now fallen to rebels of the Congolese Liberation Movement.

By nine at night Gbadolite's central boulevard was silent. Ugandan troops, backed by Congolese rebels, had captured the town five days earlier and the population were still adjusting to the lifting of the night-time curfew.

The BBC's Cathy Jenkins: Looting has reduced the town to a shell
Nonetheless, out of the dark, a figure appeared. A porter in a white suit inclined his body graciously and offered to help me with my bag.

Gbadolite is an improbable creation.

In the 1960s former President Mobutu Sese Seko decided to honour his birthplace.

[ image: Mobutu Sese Seko: His pet leopard is believed to stalk the town]
Mobutu Sese Seko: His pet leopard is believed to stalk the town
Gbadolite - a small town deep in the vast forests of northern Congo - was given wide boulevards, grand houses and an international airport.

The population of Gbadolite - many of whom are directly related to Mr Mobutu - blossomed under the development. They had electricity and large brick houses.

They also had jobs - working as servants in the three palaces that Mr Mobutu built around the town.

Changing role

[ image: A fleet of ruined limousines in the garage]
A fleet of ruined limousines in the garage
But in 1997 disaster struck Gbadolite. Congolese rebels, led by Laurent Kabila, marched across the country. Gbadolite was a symbol of Mr Mobutu's rule and as the rebels passed through the town they smashed the palaces and stole hundreds of luxury cars.

While the rest of the world cheered the fall of Mr Mobutu - who was widely regarded as a dictator and a kleptocrat - Gbadolite mourned the end of a golden era.

Mr Kabila became president, renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo - and Gbadolite was pushed to the margins of national life.

[ image: The former president's swimming pool, with a view of the rainforest]
The former president's swimming pool, with a view of the rainforest
This, however, was not the end of the town's woes. In August last year, Congolese rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda launched another rebellion - this time to oust Mr Kabila.

Gbadolite was appointed headquarters for the Congolese government to fight back the rebel advance.

Over the next 11 months, government troops camped in the town. People in Gbadolite told me that the soldiers raped women and looted property. It was, they said, like living in prison.

Rebels welcomed

[ image: Memories of the late president]
Memories of the late president
On July 3, however, the situation changed once more when the rebels finally captured Gbadolite. The goverment forces put up little resistance, leaping into canoes and rowing to neighbouring Central African Republic.

They left behind an ecstatic population.

Gbadolite gave a hero's welcome to the businessman-turned-rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba - even though Ugandan troops had done most of the fighting.

Among the crowd were men wearing shirts printed with Mr Mobutu's image - and local officials sporting Mobutu-style leopard-skin hats.

Despite this rapturous welcome, the rebels have a difficult task ahead.

[ image: Jobs are hard to find since the town lost status as presidential residence]
Jobs are hard to find since the town lost status as presidential residence
They have inherited a shattered town filled with hungry people skilled in tasks - like waiting on heads of state - for which there is no longer any call.

The fabled palaces have also been vandalised - glass crunches underfoot and the walls are scrawled with graffiti.

The four-storey state lodge has been stripped bare, and all that remains are black sunken bathtubs, and several monstrous chandeliers, too heavy for even the most determined looter to cart away. Mr Mobutu's pet leopard is said to stalk the overgrown gardens.


[ image: Chandeliers too heavy to be stolen]
Chandeliers too heavy to be stolen
Only the Chinese temple complex remains structurally intact. When I walked around with a group of Ugandan soldiers, they were struck dumb by the ornamental pond, the coloured walkways - and the tiny dragon statues peering off the edge of the pagoda style roofs.

People in Gbadolite told me that for the time being they are happy to be able to do simple things, like play their music loud at night, and walk along the streets without harassment.

But the rebels would be wrong to think that the battle for the hearts of the happy population is over.

Gbadolite has no ordinary expectations. For 30 years the town was the favoured son of an extravagant dictator - and anything less, is likely to seem like second best.

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