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Birth of a Nation? Rebels in Zaire Carve Up a Continental Giant

A trek into the territory of a mysterious rebel band uncovers their real aims.

No one knows why the rebels who overran this Zairean town left the unexploded shells lying on the main street.

Kids play dangerously near the artillery, which lies under a crumpled truck. The road in Nyabibwe is lined with burnt-out vehicles whose occupants ran to the hills when the rebels advanced in November.

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Resident Kabango Verante guesses that the rebels wanted to leave a sort of monument to their stunning military triumphs. "Maybe the rebels want to remind us of what they are capable of," Mr. Verante muses.

The rebels, in rubber Wellington boots and uniforms taken from different armies, easily overpowered the disorganized and corrupt Army of Zaire with help from neighboring Rwanda, which is ruled by ethnic Tutsis.

In just 3-1/2 months, the rebels have carved themselves a chunk of territory roughly the length of Florida's east coast. Now they threaten the 31-year dictatorial rule of Mobutu Sese Seko and raise the specter of the breakup of Zaire, sub-Saharan Africa's largest - and potentially richest - country.

The Monitor traveled to the heart of rebel-held territory to see whether the rebels - known as Alliance of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire - are capable of forming a new African nation by force and possibly igniting wider conflict.

Rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila has struggled unsuccessfully to overthrow Mr. Mobutu for more than 30 years. But his surprise military victories have raised the question of whether he is a proxy for three nations, the Tutsi-led regimes of neighboring Rwanda, Burundi, and Rwanda's ally Uganda, which want a buffer zone from Rwandan Hutu militias hiding in the hills.

While all three countries have denied giving the rebels official help, the mortars that conquered so many towns were Rwandan. And the rebels did Rwanda a large favor this fall by breaking up refugee camps, which for 2-1/2 years served as bases for Rwandan Hutu militias that were responsible for the 1994 murder of up to 1 million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Does the rebel leader really want to take power in Kinshasa, the Zairean capital, or simply force an ailing Mobutu out?

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And can the military victories be sustained?

A visit to Goma, situated near Bukavu, Mr. Kabila's headquarters, was aimed at finding some answers. But the man himself gave few clues.

Rebel with a cause

He was easy enough to find, pridefully installed at Mr. Mobutu's former palace at the edge of Lake Kivu. Kabila calls it the "Museum of Shame" because of the giant bottles of French perfume, fine cloth, and polished marble the dictator filled it with while ordinary Zaireans went hungry.

An affable smooth-faced man in civilian dress, Kabila receives visitors warmly at his offices, escorting them upstairs past gilded chandeliers installed by his nemesis.

His offices also overlook the splendid lake in Goma, which was once a summer resort for the Belgian colonials who ruled what is now Zaire.

Before the interview, Kabila gazes out of the window, with the satisfied look of a man whose life goal is within reach.

He is asked: What does he want?

"We want to end this chaos and form as soon as possible a transitional government which holds elections rapidly so that this country can be rebuilt."

Does that mean Kabila wants to replace Mobutu as president?

"The aim is not to put myself in Kinshasa. But if that is the result, then that would be better [than what we have now]."

He looks out the window again.

The talk moves on to the rebels' aims. Kabila says their immediate objective is to consolidate captured areas and flush out small pockets of Hutu militias who are staging attacks just 20 miles outside Goma from the sanctuary of the thick forest.

Start of a rebellion

The current rebellion erupted in October when authorities in the eastern Zairean province of Kivu ordered all ethnic Tutsis to leave the country. A rebel alliance, made up of Tutsis and other ethnic groups, rose up, they claimed, to fight for the rights of the oppressed Tutsi minority.

The Zairean Army crumbled before the rebel advance, barely firing a shot as they allowed the alliance to take town after town.

The rebels now hold a 400-mile-long swath of territory that stretches north to Bunia, south to Uvira, and west reportedly as far as Shabunda and Walikale.

The struggle is now reaching a crucial stage as the alliance pushes west in a pincer move from Bukavu and Bunia toward Kisangani, a vital river town. Kabila believes that a counterattack by the Zairean forces may come from there. He insists that the town and others are thick with mercenaries from France, Belgium, Angola, and South Africa hired by Mobutu's straggling military.

Military analysts do not discount the possibility that mercenaries are there but no one has offered solid proof.

It is also questionable whether hired guns could help Zaire's undisciplined and underpaid Army, despite the recent appointment of a capable chief of staff, Gen. Mahele Lieko Bokungo, who has already shaken up defecting elements in the Army.

And if the rebels take Kisangani, what happens next?

Kabila just smiles.

Military analysts say the battle for Kisangani, if it occurs, will test whether the rebel supply lines can stretch 300 miles westward - traveling through thick forests over roads filled with ruts as deep as bathtubs. If there is a battle it will be hard and long, in contrast to earlier victories.

Crumbling alliance

Kabila also has to contend with a crumbling alliance and the reported death in an ambush of his military commander, Andre Kisase Ngandu, earlier this month.

The rebels at the start were an unlikely mix of Zairean Tutsis and the Mai-Mai, a local group led by witch doctors who worship water and drape themselves with bathroom faucets. There were also fighters from other parts of the country; Kabila himself is from southern Shaba Province.

The one factor uniting the rebels was a desire to get their country out from under the thumb of Mobutu - a man who has pocketed the wealth of a country filled with gold and diamonds, seemingly doing his best to drive mineral-rich Zaire to the point of bankruptcy.

Over the past month cooperation has broken down with the Mai-Mai, and Kabila ordered the disarming of its leaders. But even he admits that it is difficult to keep these undisciplined bands under control.

Unpredictable Mai-Mai child warriors guard checkpoints just 30 miles outside Goma, adding to the menace that the alliance already faces from the Hutu militias.

Pressing inland may pose further challenges on the ethnic front. The farther the rebels get from Tutsi areas, the harder they may find it to win the hearts and minds of the dozens of different ethnic groups populating the country.

Already, for many villagers in rebel territory the alliance is seen as a preferred alternative to the raiding Zairean Army. But many believe the rebels are an occupying force, controlled by English-speaking foreigners - Rwandans and Ugandans - in a country where French is widely spoken.

The suspicion will deepen the further they press from their borders.

In order to retain control over his large territory, Kabila must eventually resolve how to raise revenue to govern more effectively than the corrupt Mobutu.

The rebels' military gains include various gold mines, including Kamitunga near Bukavu, which is thought to have reserves worth $1.5 billion. Kabila expressed confidence that the rebels would succeed in their ultimatum to foreign companies to renegotiate their mining activities with the rebels or lose their concessions.

In Goma's few functioning hotels, one finds visiting foreign businessmen who have come to talk with the new occupiers about protecting their assets. Most seem to be taking a "look but no promises" approach.

"It's hard to imagine a serious investor putting money in at this point," notes one Western diplomat. "If I were a businessman, I'd want to buy time. What if they sign deals with Kabila and then Mobutu's army recaptures the territory? It's a very tentative situation."

Redrawing the map of Zaire

Military analysts believe that if Kabila's men succeed in extending their territory, they could well redraw the map of the region and hasten the demise of the state of Zaire as we know it.

Other regions where there has been secessionism in the past - East Kasai and Shaba, which are virtually autonomous - have so far not adhered to the rebel alliance in the east. But they might take the step of breaking away if Kabila's forces make more substantial advances.

Zaire borders nine countries and the potential for destabilizing its neighbors is great. Four of its neighbors - Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, and the Central African Republic - are each grappling with either civil wars or uprisings.

Angola is tentatively emerging from civil war. And Rwanda, which is still struggling to deal with the aftermath of its 1994 genocide, is trying to integrate the more than 1 million refugees who returned home in November and December from Zaire and Tanzania.

In the meantime, the rebel alliance is yet another armed group in an area teeming with guerrillas, militias, armies, mercenaries, and armed tribalists. Its presence may in the long run pacify one area, but the struggle augers to be a long one.

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