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Stuck at a War's Crossroads

Uneasy at airport: Israeli arms dealers, Congolese mother.

Dinner comes at 10 p.m, a single piece of fried meat lumped on a bowl of hopelessly overcooked spaghetti. Angolan immigration officers on night duty at Luanda's international airport make sure their "guests" are served first. There are half a dozen people loitering in the transit area, most of them passengers whose attempt to flee the fighting in neighboring Congo have landed them in Angola.

Getting out of Congo's capital, Kinshasa, was not hard for a Congolese mother and her small son. She bribed a border official, hired a boat to take her across the Congo River, and boarded a flight to Brazzaville just as Tutsi rebels seeking to overthrow Congo's President Laurent Kabila were approaching Kinshasa. She and her son have been stuck in the airport for five days now. Her hair is in disarray, her nail polish is chipping, and her flight to Belgium is three days away.

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"This is a stupid war," says the woman, who refused to give her name. "The stupidest thing is that Kabila, who has lined his belly with dollars, is coming out as a national hero."

At the other end of the room, two Israeli arms dealers have another story to tell. One is slumped on the floor, the other is pacing up and down the room. Both are desperate to get to Kinshasa, but the airport is closed. The Israelis were promised a royal welcome in Luanda, Angola, by a delegation of Congolese officials, but no one has shown up. "They said there would be a charter waiting for us," says one." They said they would fly us to Kinshasa, no problem."

As night deepens and people doze off, one of the arms dealers comes to a bitter conclusion: He didn't move fast enough. An Italian dealer based in Monaco, he says, was first. Next came the South Africans, both dealers and mercenaries.

"Everybody is trying to sell," he whispers conspiratorially. "Kabila will buy from anybody. The problem is getting to him." He produces a business card. It says "Precious Gems Collector." "We'll probably be on tomorrow's flight to Lisbon," he says. "Next time we'll have better luck."

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