[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 9 September 2005, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Hope and retribution in Zaire

By Allan Little
BBC News, Zaire

This From Our Own Correspondent was first broadcast on 24 May, 1997.

The final days of the regime of President Mobutu of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) were characterised by rumour and fear as rebel forces approached the capital, Kinshasa.

Former President Mobutu of Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) (Photo:Gerard Fouet/AFP/Getty Images)

Rebellion enters the city, first in disembodied form.

It comes in the shape of hearsay and rumour and rising apprehension.

It comes out of the dense, damp immensity of the rainforest in silent, menacing legion and along the teeming tributaries of the great river by steamer and ferry boat and dugout canoe.

The rebel advances out there, travelling the same silent hidden paths and it is all the more menacing for being unseen and unheard.

A stalking night hunter, closing in on its prey by stealth.


Mobutu's soldiers are behaving with more and more brutal abandon
We know the rebels are coming to take the city and we know that when they descend, it will be decisive and immediate, but we do not know how far away they are, or how imminent their strike.

We wait in the highly charged city, gripped by rumour and feverish counter-rumour and we try to separate fact from fancy, legitimate balanced concern from mounting paranoia.

Everyone feels this.

Mobutu's soldiers are behaving with more and more brutal abandon.

I have seen this ready impulse to violence everywhere in this country, that single heart-stopping moment when a red-eyed angry soldier holds you at gunpoint and you wait for his bitterness and fury to spill over into physical cruelty.

The Zairean army in defeat is capable of almost anything
Or when the mood of a crowd switches from benign disregard to mass collective rage.

Today, George has been arrested at the airport with his crew.

Our interpreter, Clyde, who has been working with us for weeks and has become a valued friend steering us through the uncertainties and anxieties of this place, has been beaten up by six or more members of the supposedly elite, supposedly disciplined, special presidential guard.

They were perfectly friendly at one moment, but then suddenly turned on him.

He has been badly hurt. George and the others could do nothing. The Zairean army in defeat is capable of almost anything.

Rushing home

The army has not been paid properly in months. It is their habit to ransack the city, to embark on a frenzy of looting and pillaging
Thursday, 15 May.

At 1230 we hear from two sources simultaneously that the army has been routed and is in retreat towards the airport.

The airport road is crazy now, swarming with pumped-up Zairean troops heading into town.

Shops and offices are closing early.

The people want to get home as quickly as they can. They are afraid of the rebel advance, it is true, but they are much more afraid of what their own troops will do when the end draws near.


I am carrying my passport everywhere I go now. I find myself nervously checking from time to time that it is still in my pocket
The army has not been paid properly in months.

It is their habit to ransack the city, to embark on a frenzy of looting and pillaging in which anyone who gets in the way risks being mown down in a volley of machine gun fire. It happened in Goma, in Kisangani, in Lubumbashi.

Today, I wrote in my diary there will be an attack and a pillage, it could be tonight when the news from Nsele reaches here, it will set the city on edge, it is the end for the Zairean army, the last defensive position has gone, collapsed.

The airport is next, then the city.

I am carrying my passport everywhere I go now. I find myself nervously checking from time to time that it is still in my pocket.

I do not want to be separated from it. I am re-acquiring, unconsciously, old habits from Bosnia.

The only way we can avoid a bloodbath here is a military coup
I sleep with a torch beneath my pillow, I leave my room key in the same place every night so that I know instantly where to find it if I need to leave in a hurry.

If it starts tonight, we must stay here in the Memling hotel in the centre of town.

British Embassy advice is that foreign nationals must assemble at the InterContinental Hotel and wait for evacuation by the Marines across the river.

But it is too far to the InterContinental - we would never make it. I am convinced that we are now living the last 24 hours of the Mobutu regime.

'Hit list'

Rumour is the currency here and it is out of control
The only way we can avoid a bloodbath here is a military coup. The generals must tell the president that they are not able to defend the city and that some kind of surrender must be negotiated.

The radical opposition are going into hiding, convinced that there is a hit list of people to be murdered before the end comes.

My colleague, Richard Downes, is reading Emily Dickinson and quotes aloud: "Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves and immortality."

There is a new rumour abroad and it is bizarre and chilling, that the end will not come until a certain cremation has been carried out.

No-one knows what this means, but rumour is the currency here and it is out of control.

'Never-never land'

Television news tonight at eight o'clock reported the onset of the dry season as its lead story and warned parents to protect their children from dry season illnesses.

"We are sorry," says the newsreader, "that we are unable to bring you our usual photomontage of the president's activities today. This is due to technical reasons."

What kind of fantasy world is the regime living in?

Up there in his hilltop palace at Camp Chachi Mobutu is in a kind of presidential never-never land in which presidents never grow old and armies never suffer defeat.

'Power vacuum'

Friday, 16 May.

We are about to go through the most uncertain and perilous 24 hours

Mobutu has finally left for Gbadolite, his home village in the jungle in the north of Zaire.

He and his entourage sneaking out of the city unannounced at the crack of dawn.

It is over, he will not be back.

Our sources tell us in confidence that the generals did indeed go to him last night and they told him that they could not defend the city and that the only obstacle to a peaceful transition to rebel control was his continued presence here.

But now the hiatus.

The Mobutu regime is entering the last phase of its last catastrophe and we are about to go through the most uncertain and perilous 24 hours.

The dictator's departure has left a dangerous power vacuum.

But there is a glimmer of hope. General Mahele, the army chief of staff, summons the BBC to his office today.

His staff brief us.

The general's view is that he cannot contemplate sacrificing an entire city for the future of one man. Those days are gone.

It is the general's way of signalling that he is prepared to do a deal with Kabila's men.

The regime has turned in on itself, fragmenting in its dying hours
Rumour is rife that since the rebels got to within mobile phone range of the city there have been clandestine channels of communication between them and General Mahele's people. It is an act of extraordinary courage.

News from the airport as night falls: defensive positions there have collapsed, the army, both the rank and file and the presidential guard, have abandoned their positions and are heading into the city.

Still the fantasy world survives. The absurd information minister briefs us again. The president remains head of state, the government remains in control.

The final price

Saturday 17 May.

The streets are ringing with small arms fire

George wakes me with a phone call at three in the morning and his news chills me to the marrow.

General Mahele has been assassinated by hardline Mobutu loyalists.

The regime has turned in on itself, fragmenting in its dying hours. I am instantly awake and shivering.

I feel the familiar, unwelcome knot in my stomach and that cold, pulse-quickening chill spread from my feet through my legs, stomach and chest.

My throat tightens.

General Mahele was our hope of a peaceful handover. He was the man who risked his life to open a channel of communication with the rebels and who, it seems, has paid the final price.

The streets are ringing with small arms fire, single resounding shots echoing through the empty city and the deep, duga-duga-dug of heavy machine gun fire rolling across the rooftops through the still heavy night air.


The mounting paranoia has engulfed us
We assemble in our television edit room. A well-placed contact has called to say that renegade presidential guardsmen are on their way to our downtown hotel to take foreign hostages.

Clyde, our interpreter, still traumatised from his beating, tells us his friends in the military have warned him to stay away from the BBC today.

The BBC were the last people to speak to the assassinated General Mahele. It was the BBC who broadcast and made known to the world General Mahele's intention to bring rebel troops into the city by peaceful means.

A newspaper colleague calls from elsewhere in the hotel. "Stay away from the hotel lobby now," he says, "something is going on down there."

It is now impossible to separate rumour from fact.

We have become part of the city and are susceptible to its mood swings.

The presidential guard is fleeing, too preoccupied even to loot or pillage
The mounting paranoia has engulfed us and we choose a room that is furthest from the stairwell and lift and we wait.

Another call, another colleague, another rumour.

The European ambassadors have agreed an evacuation, Belgian paratroopers are to secure the area around the hotel. It will take 20 minutes for them to cross the river.

In the silence someone says: "Never in my life did I imagine I could be overjoyed to hear the sentence: 'The Belgians are coming.'"

And we all laugh and the whole absurd edifice of rumour and paranoia falls away.

'Full circle'

The rebels are in the eastern suburbs, the presidential guard is fleeing, too preoccupied even to loot or pillage.

One rumour stands up: the Delphic reference earlier in the week to cremation.

In his last hours in the city, President Mobutu had the remains of an old friend disinterred from their grave at Camp Chachi and cremated so that he could take them into exile with him.

They were the remains of the late president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, who was assassinated on 6 April, 1994.

His death immediately triggered the genocide in which up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered.

The genocidal regime lost the war and fled to eastern Zaire and the protection of Mobutu Sese Seko. It has come full circle.

The shockwaves from that assassination have at last toppled another great African tyranny.


Sunday, 18 May.

The army was rotten to the core and could not put up a fight

The long march from the east is over and the war is won.

Today, I walked with the rebels to the corrupt centre of the Mobutu empire, a single file column of exhausted men, earnest and disciplined, snaked its way up the hill to Camp Chachi.

They had come from Kalemie, faraway on the shores of Lake Tanganyika and they had progressed through the heart of this huge country at the pace at which a man can march.

They scarcely fired a shot. The dereliction to which Mobutu's regime has reduced the country, has finally worked to its benefit.

The army was rotten to the core and could not put up a fight. Kinshasa was spared the bloodbath it feared.

This was not a war at all. It was a people's uprising.


From the impenetrable vastness of the rainforest and along the tributaries of the river, hope has marched into the city on bare feet and weary legs and now there is retribution.

In a suburban street, seven members of the old secret intelligence service have been set upon by the mob and killed.

Their bodies piled together have been doused with petrol and are burning. I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn: those to whom evil is done do evil in return.

While the reek of burning flesh fills the air, the crowds sing songs of freedom and liberation through the smoke.

Timeline: Democratic Republic of Congo
14 May 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Democratic Republic of Congo
04 Aug 05 |  Country profiles


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific