Mobutu's men face their fate as boy

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The Independent Online
In the shadow of Kinshasa's deserted parliament a soldier, whose loyalty to Mobutu Sese Seko lasted longer than most, was lying in the sun, blood oozing from his nose.

The jubilant crowd milled around him. No one knew how he had come to die. But after 32 years of Mobutu the soldier had to be seen by everyone, almost as proof that the dictator he served was finally vanquished.

Someone had placed the soldier's arms, rather angelically, across his chest. But others mocked him. A fat woman swung her bottom in his face, to laughter from the crowd.

At the local hospital, built by the ousted president in memory of his mother - but left to crumble, like everything else in Zaire - they were pulling down Mama Mobutu's statue. And on the main boulevard in town a small group was fashioning a tombstone featuring Mobutu's face.

Yesterday, as Laurent Kabila's rebel army swelled into Kinshasa to secure the city, the new Congo-Zaire was in party mood; but the edge was there for those at home and abroad who had supported tyranny. "If you were French," said a smiling reveller. "We would cut you up."

All over town the game was rebel-spotting. At the city's radio station, now in rebel hands, hundreds stood straining to see through the iron bars.

"Verite, verite," they screamed, as a local DJ walked through the gates for a meeting with his new masters.

A local evangelist was just as triumphant. "Jesus is king," he said, thrusting a placard bearing the message. "Show that to Mobutu." Every rebel who entered the camp was cheered. Then came Willie Makongo and his brother Galenga, until Saturday a major in Mr Mobutu's army. Mr Mobutu's elite presidential guard fled from the city with their weapons but the vast majority of the country's demoralised and disillusioned troops stayed put.

Mr Galenga raised his AK47, declaring he had come to turn himself and his weapon in. The crowd cheered. "If they hand in their guns we forgive them for what they did," says Celestine, a qualified architect who can find no work. "If not we will take off their arms and legs." When the radio station gates inched open Mr Galenga went to face his fate but Willie was not worried. They had travelled into town on a rebel lorry. In a city routinely robbed by government soldiers the rebels' behaviour was rather shocking. "They actually gave us money," said Willie.

Around him the crowd chanted for Mr Kabila, but the rebel leader shared billing with Etienne Tshisekedi, Kinshasa's most popular opposition figure. In the end it was force, not political persuasion, which deposed Mr Mobutu, but the people insist Mr Kabila must not forget "Tsh-Tsh", as Mr Tshisekedi is known, scorned by foreign journalists but the population's darling.

"Kabila is president and Tshisekedi must now be prime minister," said one man. But Mr Kabila seemed to regard the man who has spent 15 years trying to wrest power from Mr Mobutu by non-violent means as a bit of a wet. Minister for Sport, it is rumoured, may be the only offer.

"It would be unwise for Kabila to ignore Tshisekedi," said Paulin Tshilomba, a 20-year-old student. "He has so much popular support."

On a nearby boulevard, 200 rebel soldiers were sitting by the roadside, being pampered by the locals. A few cynics looked on "Look at them," said a foreign businesswoman who had just removed the de rigueur Mobutu portrait from her office. "They're just babies. They did not even face a fight to take Kinshasa. How will they make something of this land?"

While Mr Mobutu's soldiers were always in retreat it was hardly easy for the rebels to get here. Izona, 20, began his trek in Eastern Zaire when Bukavu became the first town to fall to Mr Kabila last October. Two weeks ago he was at Kenge, 200km from Kinshasa, in some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

He is delighted to be here and giggles when asked to identify someone who speaks English. Rwanda, Zaire's tiny eastern neighbour, initially backed the rebellion to clear Hutu militiamen, guilty of the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Rwanda Tutsis, from its border. Its disciplined, skilled and English-speaking soldiers are believed to have led Zairean troops across 900km of jungle to take Kinshasa.

"There are people who speak English," said Izona. "But you must identify them yourself." Everyone around him claimed to speak only French.

Rwandan Tutsi discipline seems to have rubbed off. The liberators will accept no food. The army, they say, will feed them. In a country riddled with corruption, perhaps Mr Kabila and his generals are trying to sow the first few honest seeds. "Do you have a cigarette," whispered one recruit, and is scowled at by his friend.

These boy-soldiers have crossed Zaire in flip-flops and Wellingtons. Izona, sticking plasters holding his machine gun together, has ripped old badges - and their associated allegiances - from his uniform, clearly taken from a dead opponent.

Many sniggered when Laurent Kabila promised to march his rag-tag band across Zaire to Kinshasa. But not Izona, then a student. He left his parents and joined the rebels with some friends. He has not seen his family since, but is not returning home.

"We are liberated now and everything must change," he insists, "and I must work for my country to make it secure." And he is quite emphatic that Mr Kabila will not become another Mobutu. "We fight for the population," he says, to encouraging murmurs "not just for Kabila."

Kinshasans did some liberating of their own. On Saturday they helped 800 men break out of prison after the former government soldiers deserted in droves.

Yesterday, the prison was stripped of furniture, food and weapons, and the roof was just leaving. "C'est mort," shouted a looter, tearing a ragged Zairean flag. They had freed the men, they said, because most were innocent. Among the prisoners were two Russian pilots jailed 16 months ago after their plane crashed just after take-off into a market in Kinshasa. More than 400 people died. The Russian pilots were blamed but many in Kinshasa say corrupt officials were responsible for allowing the market to be based so near the airport.

"We took them to the local priest for safety," said a looter yesterday. The priest confirmed the pilots were picked up yesterday by Russian Embassy officials. Locals seemed to think it was only right that on a day of liberty the two Russians should also be free.