'Black hole' from which little news emerges: In the first of a series of reports on a journey through Zaire, Richard Dowden reaches Goma and finds the country still deserves its reputation for anarchy

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The Independent Online
IF YOU say you are going to Zaire people look at you as if they do not expect to see you again. 'Good luck,' they say, 'you'll need it.' It has the reputation of being a country that has imploded, leaving a large black hole from which little news emerges and from which no traveller returns unscathed.

It has never lost the reputation it gained at independence in 1960 for barbarity and anarchy when the United Nations stepped in to prevent its southern province of Katanga (now Shaba) from seceding. Shaba has broken away again and the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, the man who has held power for almost 30 years, seems to be in decline. In the capital, Kinshasa, there are two governments and no one outside the country seemed to have a clear idea of how far either of them controls events outside the capital.

Yesterday in Rwanda I hitched a lift with a UN vehicle heading for the Zaire border and we stopped at one of the camps for people displaced by the civil war in Zaire. The camp is 1,000 little mud hovels covered in plastic sheeting.

As maize, beans and oil were measured out in a food distribution organised by the Red Cross, a gang of filthy, hungry children kept creeping around the food piles trying to snatch grains of maize on the ground, but they were continually beaten back by camp wardens with sticks and clubs. The pushing and squabbling in the queues became too great and the distribution was halted until order was restored. Most of the people have been here since 1990 and they are dejected and aimless. Aid workers complain that any solidarity they ever had has gone and they never help each other. They even have to be paid to dig latrines for themselves in the camp. Africa is hell.

In an hour we are sitting drinking cold beer on a hotel lawn which sweeps down to the shore of Lake Kivu. Exotic humming-birds and wagtails dart among the bougainvillaea and hibiscus flowers. The lake shimmers in the afternoon sun and behind us rears the huge and perfect-shaped Nyiragongo volcano, its thick forests the refuge of the famous mountain gorillas. Sometimes Africa is paradise. The hotel offers ice-cream with fresh strawberries and, since we are heading to Zaire, we treat ourselves.

A bar across the road marks the Zaire border and beside it is a single-roomed shack which is the immigration office. On the wall hangs an old picture of President Mobutu and underneath someone has written 'le sauveur de la patrie' (saviour of the nation). Here at least the President still rules. The immigration officer fills out my details in a large ledger and he offers me peanuts from a pile on his desk. The floor is littered with the shells. Notices on the grubby walls urge protection of Zaire's wildlife and 'evitez le Sida avec prudence' (Prudence avoids Aids). I emerge unscathed but as I leave a soldier emerges from the office marked 'Douane' and wants to search my bag. This is my dread. How can I explain what a satellite telex system is and if I succeed will it not translate into 'spy' in his mind? He asks again but at that moment the immigration officer comes to my rescue. He wants a lift into town.

Goma looks uncared for and rundown and there are more potholes than tarmac in its streets. Just over a year ago an unpaid army unit sacked the city and since then the traders, mostly Asians, have not restocked their shops or put anything on show. There are a few old colonial buildings but most are brutal concrete bunkers. There are a lot of soldiers on the streets. The only street with lighting leads to the President's mansion by the shore of the lake. He is said to visit it for less than a day a year. There are many others palaces like it dotted around the country. It is kept in permanent readiness for his arrival, with two ambulances parked beside it.

A friend in Goma gives me a rundown of the local problems: the new currency has already collapsed and is worth, at the old rate, 300m zaires to the dollar; there are camps for people displaced by ethnic clashes to the north and Burundi refugees to the south.

There is a dysentery epidemic in Katana, meningitis in Rwangaba and bubonic plague in Bunia. Oh - and there was an earthquake last week: 5.6 on the Richter scale but not many dead.

(Photograph and map omitted)