God and Mammon vie in the heart of darkness: Diamonds and religion keep Kisangani alive, Richard Dowden writes from a Zaire town whose history is steeped in blood

KISANGANI is a dead town with bad dreams. I spend my nights with God but I eat with Mammon. I sleep at the Catholic mission but during the day I wander up the street to the diamond-buying office owned by De Beers. God and diamonds are the only things which generate activity in this town. I suppose the only other thing they have in common is that both are based on faith - religion and the value of diamonds are all in the mind; they have no practical use.

The rest of Kisangani is a ghost town and the ghosts are evil. An Arab slaving-post, renamed Stanleyville by the ruthless explorer after himself, it became the centre of King Leopold II's slave empire. It was the setting for Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Naipaul's Bend in the River, it was the scene of massacres in the early 1960s. After the army looted the town in 1991 and 1993 almost all the traders fled and most shops and offices have been abandoned as have the government buildings.

The De Beers diamond office is bright and white and staffed by Billy from Frinton-on-Sea and Paul from Borehamwood. They are both in their mid-20s, fresh-faced professionals. 'It's got to be more interesting than sitting in Charterhouse Street sorting diamonds,' said Paul. They sit dressed in T- shirts and shorts behind a wide desk. On it are the diamond buyer's standard equipment: lamp, magnifying glass, scales and a calculator. And behind them on the floor is the diamond buyer's other essential - a large cardboard box stuffed with banknotes.

The sellers, usually in a group, have to pass through two steel gates but in this city, where there are no police or courts or administration, there is surprisingly little visible security. They are not usually the diggers who have toiled in gravel pits on river banks to find the stones; the sellers are more often town-dwellers who supply the diggers with food and tools and buy their diamonds. It's a seller's market - there are about 40 buying offices in town; the rest of them are Lebanese-owned. De Beers, the London-based diamond cartel, is called Sediza here. It likes to buy close to the source to cut out as many middlemen as possible.

The packets of diamonds, parcels as they are called in the trade, are wrapped up in Zairean notes stuck with chewing-gum. The diamonds look like unexciting little piles of crushed glass and pebbles. Paul sorts them, weighs them, picks through them with tweezers and offers a price. It is refused but this group has already been in twice and it's the end of the day.

As they reach the door they turn back and in a few minutes the deal is struck. Paul shows no emotion but a sidelong glance to Neil indicates it's a good deal. He reaches down and builds a wall of money on the desk with bricks of bound wads of Zairean banknotes. The largest denomination equals less than a dollar and this is dollars 5,000 ( pounds 3,380) worth. The group leaves with the money in plastic shopping-bags. God knows what they will spend it on in Kisangani.

I managed to get a lift out of town along the great, grey river past Stanley Falls and into the overgrown colonial plantations of oil palms and coffee.

Mud and thatch huts are strung out along the roadside, with a few cassava plants and sweet-potatoes planted around them. Behind the huts the forest is a vast still wall of green, endless and oppressive.

A European-style house stands on a low hill, arrogantly looking out over the river. It is long abandoned, the roof has collapsed and the avenue of trees to it are dead and skeletal. Is this perhaps Mr Kurtz's house? I am glad to be leaving this place tomorrow.

(Photograph and map omitted)