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Saturday, 16 September, 2000, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Welcome to DR Congo
Rebel soliders, DR Congo
The conflict in DR Congo is deep-rooted
By Andrew Harding in eastern Congo

There were frogs legs in garlic on the menu, and light, fluffy little omelettes, and French wine, and fresh coffee.

Two kestrels screeched and swooped across the lawn in front of the terrace bar. Behind them, the shiny silver fingers of Lake Kivu stretched out into the haze.

"Welcome to Congo," whispered the waiter.

Well, I was impressed ... and confused. This was my first African war, and I had been expecting something a little, well, a little less plush.


When Rwanda's bloodshed ended (or almost ended), the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war began, and in various guises, it is still going strong

Marc, the Orchid Hotel's elderly Belgian owner came over to join us after dinner.

"Ah," he said. "Business is not so good. You see the jetty down there by the lake? In 1993 Bill Gates came here by motorboat. They all did. They came to see the gorillas in the hills."

Well, the tourists stopped coming to see the apes soon after Mr Gates's visit. Instead Marc's clientele became mostly guerrillas - soldiers and politicians and killers from the 1994 war and genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

The sort who do not always pay their hotel bills.

Sinister warning

When Rwanda's bloodshed ended (or almost ended), the Democratic Republic of Congo's civil war began, and in various guises, it is still going strong.

These days most of the Orchid's guests look like delegates to an Ernest Hemmingway convention. White, or rather pink skinned, bearded types in khaki shorts, sitting alone with a glass of beer.

Aid workers, more aid workers, the odd journalist and a few South African pilots.

The sun disappeared over the dark green hills, and dozens of pencil-thin fishing canoes slipped out onto the lake, each carrying a lantern.

Friendly warning

I was just thinking about heading off to bed, when one of the aid workers came over for a chat.

Rebel soldier
Who's who: Rebels; rebels rebelling against rebels; rebel governemnt troops ....
"Is that your car outside?" he asked. "The one with the Rwandan number plates, and the Rwandan driver?"

"Well, a word of warning. Don't even think about driving out of town, or even to the outskirts.

"Your driver will get lynched. You might too."

The Rwandans are not popular in this part of eastern Congo. That is because their army happens to be occupying the area. Or at least trying to occupy it. There is plenty of competition from other armies and militias.

Interahamwe

It is a complicated war here in DR Congo.

You have got foreign troops, government troops, rebel government troops, plain rebels, and rebels rebelling against the rebels.

The Rwandans say they are here in order to track down and destroy the remnants of the Interahamwe - the genocidal militia who killed at least 800,000 Rwandans in 1994.

About 30,0000 Interahamwe escaped into jungles near the Orchid Hotel - where they remain terrifyingly at large.

And, of course, it was across those jungles that we were planning to venture the next day by plane.

Dangerous journey

The local airport was half-an-hour's drive from the hotel, along the lake shore. The South African pilot from the hotel was there already, standing under the wing of his grey, 60-year-old DC something or other.

map
"Welcome to the Moroccan bazaar," he said, gesturing at the other planes.

Someone should have put a sign up saying, "Please do not touch these ancient, experimental museum pieces."

A few yards away, an engineer called Kuba who said he was from Kyrgystan in central Asia, was tinkering with the engine of an old Soviet cargo plane. There were two more parked nearby. Stolen, muttered the South African.

Kuba pointed to a tin shed where he said his two Russian pilots were having their first drink of the day.

Something told me not to ask them for a lift.


Two planes had been shot at trying to land at Shabunda in the past fortnight

We wanted to fly to Shabunda - a small town in the jungle about 300km (200 miles) away. We had heard it was under siege by a militia group, and the local population was in a bad way.

It took about three hours of haggling with various agents before we agreed a price, and clambered on board the South African plane. The pilot, who said he had just spent two years in an Angolan jail on trumped up smuggling charges, took his seat and started the engine.

'I'm not flying to Shabunda'

What he did not tell us until later that evening, back at the Orchid, was that two planes had been shot at trying to land at Shabunda in the past fortnight. One of the Russian pilots had got a bullet in the hand, the other plane had been hit in the fuel tank.

"One of my mates had the boss by the neck the other day," he said. "Pushed him up against the wall, shouting - I'm not flying to Shabunda."

Well, we were and after about 40 minutes the plane banked sharply, and started losing altitude fast. Suddenly, the endless green of the jungle ended and a patch of dry grass came into view - the runway.

A crowd of soldiers, officials and onlookers emerged from some wooden huts to greet us. Our plane flew off. Another museum piece was supposed to come and pick us up in two hours time.

We walked, wrapped in the noisy, sweltering heat of the jungle, down Shabunda's main road.

We saw hungry children, wounded adults, battle-scarred buildings and an impossibly cheerful Italian missionary.

Ten thousand people were trapped in the town, hemmed in by a murderous rebel militia called the Mai Mai.

All in all, not a happy place. Still, everything is relative. When the town's young military commander learned that I had only just arrived in Africa after years in Russia, he gave me a look of pure pity.

"I hear it is very cold there," he said. "And the food is not so good."

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See also:

14 Sep 00 | Africa
DR Congo's forgotten disaster
26 Aug 98 | Africa
The Congo Conflict: Q&A
30 Jun 00 | Africa
Timeline: DR Congo conflict
07 Sep 00 | Americas
Africa: UN's 'strategic ghetto'
30 Jun 00 | Africa
Congo's unhappy birthday
30 Jul 00 | Africa
UN calls for pressure on Kabila
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