Zairean rebels win hearts, minds and land

The writing is on the wall: Democratic Republic of Congo. The name of Africa's latest breakaway republic, newly painted above the entrance to the Zaire Express airline office, stands out in contrast to Goma's other crumbling facades.

Inside the building, occupied by the new regime's Information Minister, are two maps. Neither reveals the reality of life in this eastern Zairean town since it was captured by rebels nearly four months ago. The world map shows Goma as just another mark on the unified expanse of green which is Zaire. The other map, of the airline's internal routes, has not been altered since the capital, Kinshasa, severed its links with Goma soon after the launch of the rebel offensive last October.

Since then, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo- Zaire (ADFL) has occupied a huge swathe of territory in eastern Zaire. Led by the former Marxist Laurent Kabila, the rebels have driven the demoralised Zairean army (FAZ) before them, taking town after town with apparent ease.

Their rapid progress is causing growing alarm in far-off Kinshasa. The Zairean government bowed to international pressure to engage in South African-sponsored talks about the crisis last week. But it has ruled out the possibility of any direct dealing with the rebels.

Mr Kabila arrived in South Africa yesterday and was whisked away for what rebel sources said were secret talks on a solution to the Zaire civil war.

The rebels have said they will settle for nothing short of the resignation of the ailing Zairean president, Mobutu Sese Seko.

"We're serious about talks," says ADFL Information Minister Raphael Ghenda. "But if our conditions are not met, we'll continue fighting, all the way to Kinshasa if necessary. We're nearly there already."

Mr Ghenda's claim is an unashamed exaggeration but there are many who believe the rebels could reach the capital if they continue to advance at their current rate. Already, they are close to Kisangani, Zaire's third- largest city and a strategic location for control of the country's interior. The Zairean defence ministry said Kalima, a small mining town about 180 miles south of Kisangani, came under rebel control at the weekend. A spokesman for the rebels said they were moving from Kalima south to Kindu to try to capture one of two government airports in eastern Zaire.

"At the moment we have 10 million people under our control," says Mr Ghenda, who has come back from exile in Belgium to serve the new regime. "The current government is corrupt. We want to change that. I believe most of the population is with us."

Though it is impossible to assess their popularity nation-wide, the rebels seem to have been welcomed in most areas they hold. This is not so surprising: Zaire's politicians, and in particular its president, have for decades been synonymous with corruption and greed. Unpaid, the army has devoted itself to pillage and extortion. The rebels, by contrast, appear disciplined and committed to reform. "People are happy here at the moment," says one foreign aid worker in Goma. "We deal with a rebel committee which protects us from the lower ranks of the civil service who still try to get money out of us. So far, we've had little reason to complain."

What last October started out as a self-defence campaign among eastern Zaire's Tutsi community is now a liberation movement with nationalist aspirations. As they push into the interior the rebels gain new recruits, some of them defectors from the FAZ. Nevertheless, the core of the rebel force continues to be seen as largely Tutsi.

Much of the insurgents' popularity will depend on their ability to reorganise the economy. Already, interim political structures have been established and administrators appointed. In Goma there is once again electricity and running water.

Government threats to continue and intensify air bombardments which began last week are unlikely to have little effect on the rebel advance. The inhabitants of Bukavu and the other affected towns have not responded to government exhortations to leave rebel territory. By targeting civilian areas, Kinshasa is certain to further alienate the populace and increase sympathy for the insurgents' cause.