Centre cannot hold in Zaire's wild east: On day three of his journey, Richard Dowden reports from Goma on spreading disintegration as government rule wanes

BEFORE I came here I contacted an aid agency working in Zaire about travelling and asked about the possibilities of venturing west into the rest of the country from this eastern province. The reply came in a telex message which simply said: 'West of here the forest starts 100km away'.

The Tarmac gives way a few miles from the town and from then on the track does not allow you to travel at more than 15mph even in a Land Rover. Travelling 40 miles west we never got out of second gear and had to change down to bump through the ruts and bath-sized potholes. I worked out that if we were to cross Zaire like this in a straight line it would take at least two weeks to get to the capital. But there are no straight lines in Zaire and there is not even a Tarmac road linking this region with the next one.

Kivu region in eastern Zaire is so cut off from the rest of the country it is almost an autonomous state. There is a small presence of the presidential paramilitary force but the only things that work in the province are run by merchants. It is a bit like the concession system operated by the big Belgian companies when their king ruled the state of Congo. If you want to travel from here you either cross the border into Rwanda, Burundi or Uganda or you fly. The state airline doesn't operate any more but some privately owned companies fly to other Zairean cities.

Even the roads which do exist are not maintained. The government is bankrupt and the administration has disintegrated. Local people only walk so they only need a track. They may also remember that their forefathers were forced to build the roads so that Belgian colonial merchants could come and buy the crops which the peasant farmers were forced to grow and sell at monopoly prices.

So the local people do not maintain the roads but prefer to wait until you get stuck in the mud so they can charge for pulling you out. But even flying has its problems. One American mission which runs a regular flight from here was approached by the local chief who wanted payment because the plane passed through his airspace.

Despite the desuetude of the state and the roads there is a lot of trade in the region. It either comes up Lake Kivu by boat from Bukavu or across the border to Rwanda or Uganda and the most precious goods are flown from Goma to Kinshasa. The coffee crop is said to go to Uganda where the traders are paid properly for it. Once a week the ferry from Bukavu is freed of passengers to be loaded up with beer from the Primus brewery.

There is no local radio, no newspapers and no postal service any more and no telephone system. There are apparently about 300 satellite phones in Goma, mostly owned by traders, and the few aid workers still here use radios to communicate with Kampala or Nairobi. Otherwise they drive a couple of miles across the border into Rwanda to make phone calls or just to rest in a hotel for a night. The local radio system is also used as a security network. As the police are no longer effective there is a self-help vigilante force.

Goma and the region appear to be quietly opposed to the waning rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko. On Wednesday there was a stayaway called by the opposition and nothing opened in Goma all day - although some pointed out that people here do not need much excuse not to go to work. The same day saw a new phenomenon: the launch of the Goma civic society, which is an attempt by young professionals to take responsibility for the running of the town, a sort of enforced UDI.

But for the man who used to rule, and own, the country none of this seems to trouble him. When he was staying in one of his palaces near by recently the staff had failed to turn the refrigerator on soon enough and there was no ice. His personal helicopter was sent into town to collect a supply from a trader.