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A bend in the river, a twist of history

Stanleyville, VS Naipauls' colonial town on the Congo, is set to be taken by Zaire's 'liberators' 30 years after their first attempt, says Richard Gott
As Laurent Kabila's rebel forces march towards Kisangani, the third-largest town in Zaire, the world is beginning to wake up to the fact that one of the most important countries in Africa is about to change hands. For much of the past six months, while the Zaire rebellion has been maturing, attention has remained focused on one of the more insignificant countries - on the drama and tragedy associated with Rwanda. Now the future of Zaire itself is finally at the top of the agenda.

Readers wondering why the fall of Kisangani might be such a key development will understand better if reminded of its change of name. Just as Zaire used to be called the Congo (and is to be called that again when Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo wins the current war), so Kisangani was once called Stanleyville. The old name must still evoke a curious flood of memories in the West - of colonial adventurers, missionaries and mercenaries, and Cold War entanglements. It is a measure of how the world has changed over the past 30 years that the future of the Congo/Zaire should now be seen to be of such little moment.

In November 1964, only just elected as Britain's prime minister and without a foreign secretary in parliament, Harold Wilson authorised the use of the British military base on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic for a special mission. It was to serve as a launching-pad for a successful US-Belgian attempt to turn the tide of a civil war in the Congo in which the fate of the world seemed to hang in the balance.

On 24 November, 600 Belgian paratroops, flown in from Ascension Island on transport planes supplied by the United States, captured Stanleyville airport, and linked up with mercenaries from South Africa and Rhodesia fighting for the government army of Moises Tshombe. Their official aim was to rescue European hostages held in the town.

Stanleyville, an attractive colonial riverine city, was established in the early 1880s by Henry Stanley, the American journalist (and later a British MP). It became the heartland of Congolese radicalism, home town of Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the Congo at the time of independence from Belgium in 1960. Lumumba, backed by the Russians, was murdered early in 1961, after the first trial of strength with Tshombe, backed by the West, during which the United Nations looked impotently on.

Lumumba's name was to be opportunistically used by the Russians for their newly-established university for Third World students in Moscow, and in 1964 his statue stood in the centre of Stanleyville.

In August that year, as is happening today, the town was captured by rebels fighting in the Lumumbist cause. There they established for several months the headquarters of the "People's Republic of the Congo", led by Christophe Gbenye, a politician formerly in Lumumba's government. In the great Cold War battle for victory in recently decolonised Africa, the Communists seemed to be forging ahead.

The left-wing rebels had done well that year. Pierre Mulele, another old Lumumbist, had moved in from Congo-Brazzaville and seized much territory in the west, while Gaston Soumaliot and Laurent Kabila - then a young French-educated politician from northern Katanga - had advanced from Burundi into the eastern Congo, west of Lake Tanganyika (just where Kabila has again been operating so successfully). With the capture of Stanleyville in August 1964, much of the country was in rebel hands.

The United Nations, which had had troops in the Congo for four years and was suffering from Congo fatigue, had withdrawn them in June. The Chinese, still denied membership of the UN, had been taking an interest in supporting Mulele. The Russians, still refusing to pay their share of the UN's Congo expedition, were backing Soumaliot and Kabila.

Soon the diplomatic recognition extended to Gbenye's "People's Republic" by many radical African states was to set the scene for one of the typical confrontations "by proxy" of the Cold War. The Russians and the Chinese now openly supported Gbenye's rebel government, while the Americans and the West gave military aid and succour to the government in the capital, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), of Tshombe (who had seized power in July) and his commander-in-chief, Colonel Joseph Mobutu.

For several months, as Tshombe's white mercenary army was assembled and trained and began to advance from the south towards Stanleyville, there was a propaganda war. In Stanleyville itself, the rebels spread news of an American "atomic attack" on a town to the north, and held two days of mourning for the "victims". At the same time, Nicolas Olenga, the rebel military commander in Stanleyville, and his "Simba" troops, became globally famous for what were considered their "atrocities".

Because the "white" West was supporting Tshombe, Olenga's men began to round up the Belgians and the North Americans in the local white community in the Stanleyville area. Mostly businessman and Protestant missionaries, they were, of course, regarded as untrustworthy. Some of the North Americans had been brought up on the stories of the famous massacre of Protestant missionaries in Ecuador in the Fifties, and had a highly developed sense of impending martyrdom. Many of them were rounded up by the Simbas, detained, ill-treated, and then held as hostages. (Alone among the old European population, the Greeks were left unmolested - to feed the others in the gaol.)

As Tshombe's mercenary army closed in on Stanleyville in November, the Americans feared that their hostage missionaries would be killed. They devised a rescue operation, to coincide with the arrival of the mercenary army, that would send in Belgian snatch-squads to lift out the hostages.

It was the longest long-range parachute operation ever undertaken, and, as in other similar cases, it was only partially successful. The paratroopers landed, the airport was seized, and several missionaries and their families were rescued. But many were inevitably killed in the ensuing chaos. The death toll as the rebel city fell to the mercenaries was large: more than 200 Europeans and hundreds of Africans.

VS Naipaul, in his novel A Bend in the River, describes Stanleyville in the aftermath of the rebellion. "The place had had its troubles: the town at the bend in the river was more than half destroyed. What had been the European suburb near the rapids had been burnt down, and bush had grown over the ruins; it was hard to distinguish what had been gardens from what had been streets."

The result of the Stanleyville operation - a textbook example of overt Western intervention - was further to unite the radical African states - notably Algeria, Egypt, Guinea and Ghana - in favour of the anti-Tshombe forces. They promised to back up their words with military assistance, as did the Russians and the Chinese.

A surprising player then entered the lists. Just as the Americans had provided Cuban mercenaries (left over from the Bay of Pigs in 1961) to fly Tshombe's planes, so Fidel Castro was now to send his own Cubans to help the Congolese rebels. In December 1964, Che Guevara went to the United Nations in New York to denounce the crime at Stanleyville, perpetrated by "Belgian paratroopers, transported by United states aircraft, which took off from British bases". A few months later, in April 1965, he arrived with a trained troop of black Cubans to join Kabila's motley collection of Congo fighters.

But by that time, General Mobutu's mercenary army had already got the upper hand. The Congolese rebels failed even to get near to Stanleyville, let alone to recapture it. Within a few months, Kabila's men were defeated on many fronts. They lost on the battlefield to the mercenaries, and they lost the political struggle as a result of the internal dissensions. Both losses led them to lose the support of their international allies. General Mobutu staged a coup against Tshombe at the end of 1965, and has remained in power ever since.

More than three decades later, the situation could hardly be more different. The distortions of the Cold War have fallen away. The "radical" African states have all disappeared, as has the Soviet Union itself, and the threat of Chinese intervention. Che Guevara and Tshombe are long dead. Only Castro and Mobutu remain - and Laurent Kabila.

Although there is considerable disagreement between the United States and France about what should happen in what will undoubtedly soon again be called the Congo, the chief international players are now the governments of the surrounding states.

Here Laurent Kabila has played his hand with consummate skill, and President Mobutu's position is correspondingly weak. Starting with the firm support of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, Kabila has also had the backing of the Luanda government in Angola. They have long opposed President Mobutu because of his ancient friendship with Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the Unita rebels. While Uganda helped to organise, train, and discipline Kabila's rebels into an effective force, the Angolans have reportedly been flying in both men and weapons to Kabila's liberated zone on the Tanzanian border. One diplomatic report even suggests that a rebel Zairean force is already assembling in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, poised to move on Kinshasa at any moment.

In all these developments, the old protagonists of the Cold War have been conspicuous by their absence. General Mobutu is convalescing in Southern France, but planning a return this week. He belongs to that old generation of dictators, east and west, who were kept in power by the immobility of that frozen era. He will soon go to join Ferdinand Marcos and Alfredo Stroessner in that part of Valhalla set aside for dictators distinguished by their longevity and finally dropped by their patrons. The Americans, for their part, take an intelligent interest in what is going on, but show no signs of propping up their old ally. No one, this time, has put Ascension Island on alert.

As the heirs to the legacy of Patrice Lumumba, Kabila's men now stand once again at the gates of the old, decrepit town of Stanleyville - where doubtless, as everywhere else, they will be greeted this time as liberators. Kabila could certainly run a decent post-Mobutu Congo, though no one thinks it would be particularly radical. That era is over. Yet it will be a strange twist of history - a Long March indeed - if Che Guevara's old companion- in-arms finally gets to control the Congo - more than 30 years after his first attempt.