The Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which as many as 800, 000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed, ended when a Tutsi-led rebel army swept down from Uganda and conquered the country, sending most of the government's forces and the civilian corps of killers into exile in neighboring Zaire. With them went hundreds of thousands of other Hutu who, though they may have been innocent of participating in the genocide, feared retribution at the hands of the new regime. Their rapidly deteriorating condition in unsanitary, makeshift camps drew widespread media attention, and the international community, which had done little more than watch as the genocide unfolded, mounted a major relief operation that eventually cost a million dollars a day. The killers, however, quickly established themselves as the camps' dominant military and political force. Siphoning off money and supplies meant for the refugees, they began launching cross-border incursions into Rwanda and conducting pogroms against indigenous Zairian Tutsi, among whom were a group called the Banyamulenge.
Matters came to a head in October 1996, when Rwanda invaded eastern Zaire, dispersed the camps, and sparked a revolt by the Banyamulenge that quickly drew support from a wide range of Zairians fed up with the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. This rebellion or incursion - it remains unclear which is the more appropriate term - progressed with uncanny rapidity from one end of the country to the other and along the way acquired a leader named Laurent Desire Kabila, a former Marxist rebel and gold smuggler of dubious credentials. Kabila's troops, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL), entered Kinshasa on May 17, 1997, prompting guarded enthusiasm, locally and internationally, for the future of the country.
But what would Kabila's accession mean for Zaire - now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo? What challenges confronted the new regime and how did it plan to meet them? Would there be, as Kabila kept promising, democracy, an end to human rights abuses, even, perhaps, some measure of prosperity? How did Zairians view the new regime? Was this, in fact, a change for the better? Was Kabila even in charge? I traveled to Kinshasa in June of this year, seeking some preliminary answers to these questions.
Kinshasa's N'Djili airport was much as I remembered it. Disembarking in the chill, colorless hour before dawn, I queued before the immigration booths in a vast anteroom under flickering, moth-clogged lights. The floor tiles were chipped, the walls blotchy. Ceiling fans squeaked overhead. In the men's room to one side a urinal was overflowing, and through the open door I could see a skinny, humpbacked man in a T-shirt and baggy trousers mopping the waste into an open drain. It seemed a perpetual task. On the other side, a windowed partition divided the riffraff from the diplomats and other VIPs, who strode self-consciously through a separate entrance to the main gate. Later, we assembled in competing congregations around the baggage carousel: the cameramen in ink-stained flak jackets and two-day stubble, the leather-faced Belgian nuns, and the returning Africans with their cheap audio systems and cases of duty-free whiskey.
Not everyone had disembarked, however; we left on the plane a phalanx of scarred orphans (including a girl who had sat beside me the entire trip shielding her disfigured face with her hand) commanded by a large, bearded priest. The flight was continuing to Luanda.
But in an airport whose reputation had been second, perhaps, only to Nigeria's Murtala Mohammed as a purgatory of shakedowns, there was only a cursory inspection of the documents, a smart stamp (still indicating Zaire), and an official "Bon Sejour" welcoming me to the country. By the curb outside, there was evidence that the revolution that had just ousted Mobuto was still in the mop-up stage. Amid the barefoot shoeshine boys tapping on their plywood boxes, the mothers with infants lolling on their backs, there was a sudden excitement: shouts, murmurs, a ricochet of movement in the crowd. Then two slight young men in shirtsleeves were hustled to the ground by a teenage soldier wielding his AK-47 like a club. They were members of the Division Special Presidentiel, Mobutu's once-feared praetorian guard, forced to their bellies before a jeering crowd. For a moment I feared there would be an execution or, what I imagined would be worse, a lynching. But a van sped off with the men inside before the crowd could rouse itself to act.
I had lived in Bukavu, in eastern Zaire (as Congo was then called), ten years earlier. At that time, I was on a post-undergraduate fellowship, gathering oral histories with a view to documenting the impact of poverty in the region. Episodically since, I had been involved in the anti-Mobutu campaign in the United States, which is to say that I was on the fringes of a small group of activists - mostly expatriate Zairians teaching at second-tier universities around the country - whose seeming political weightlessness gave a hothouse fragility to their cause, exacerbating the rivalries endemic in any exile community. Some of those Congolese had joined the rebellion early on and were now prominent in the new government. Most of the others viewed President Laurent Kabila with suspicion and alarm, as a Rwandan quisling and incipient dictator.
My experience ten years before had given me a sense for the squalid tragedies and routine misery that Mobutu had inflicted upon the people of Congo. I wanted to find out for myself what this new regime was about and, by extension, whether the lot of the ordinary people was likely to improve. As it happened, I left the United States just as the newspapers were reporting that massacres of Hutu refugees were a common occurrence in the east. It was, to say the least, a dismal portent.
The drive into Kinshasa was a reminder of how thoroughly the ancien regime had ransacked the country during the course of Mobutu's 30-year rule. The taxi I rode in was a chassis with a motor, held together with stray wires. The gauges were empty sockets, the seats a few springs covered with plastic sheets. From the airport's derelict hangars, we drove on a potholed highway past weedy fields into Masina, the vast bidonville where the poorest of the poor live.
An orange sun was rising through the dry season's gritty haze. There were miles of wooden shacks and low-slung cinderblock houses, acres of corrugated tin roofs, an odor of charcoal and rotting garbage. On a bench by one darkened doorway a mother wiped the dust from her infant's face, rinsing the rag in a pail of gray-black water. The child caught sight of me and squirmed upright, waving and smiling. Other women were setting up roadside stalls to sell their few stalks of bananas, some sticks of firewood, or fried dough and tea to the army of men who were even then beginning their long trek to work in town.
Every so often, pairs of cement stairwells rose skyward from either side of the highway, but the pedestrian overpasses that had once connected them had long since collapsed. A few corrugated iron spokes jutted, twisted and rusting, off the landings. The driver and I were silent most of the way in, but suddenly, toward the end, he erupted: "You see how everything was destroyed. This is a car? This is a city? It's absurd."
How to Lose a War
It was as good an epitaph as any for the old dictator's rule. The Belgians had called their crown colony a "scandale geologique," and in truth the Congo's natural resources ought to have yielded wealth to dwarf the riches of Croesus. But Mobuto, who ended up with a personal fortune estimated at between four and eight billion dollars, instituted a reign of corruption so parasitic that the country became famous only as a basket case. The roads - the pride of the old colonial system - crumbled away, unmaintained, under the tropic's one-two punch of sun and rain. Traversing the country by land, which had been a three-day adventure by car in the colonial era, lengthened into a three-week ordeal by Landrover, then became all but impossible. Fittingly, Mobutu's corruption ended by consuming the state apparatus itself, fatally weakening its capacity to respond to the rebels' challenge.
The ease with which the rebels seized the country astonished many people inside Zaire and without ("won the war" is perhaps too bellicose a formulation for an operation that involved at most three halfhearted military engagements). Mobutu had ruled for so long that even during his recent ultimately fatal illness, when prostate cancer left him convalescing for months at a time in Monaco or Switzerland, most Zairians continued to credit him as a Machiavellian genius. Even the destruction of the country's infrastructure was considered a masterstroke, for it seemed to preclude any coordinated military challenge. Yet in the first real threat to his rule since the end of the Cold War, his reputation for invincibility turned to dust. Mobutu's regime, as The Economist noted, was like a house so termite-ridden that it fell with the slightest shove.
Thickets of billboards announced our arrival downtown. We detoured around the capsized, burned-out shell of a minivan. Students had commandeered the van the day before to attend the funeral of a general assassinated while trying to persuade Mobutu's army not to attempt a last-ditch defense of the capital. Soldiers restoring the van to its owner shot and killed one of the students, who had imprudently attempted to wrest control of a soldier's gun. The students rioted, the van was burned, and the corpse of the student was carried to the funeral of the martyred general and paraded up and down the church aisles in a grisly protest. The minivan would lie in the boulevard for weeks.
We arrived at the hotel, my white face a passport through the knot of soldiers guarding its gate. Despite the $12 banana splits on the room...