DR Congo + 3 more

Confusion reigns in battle for Africa

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Victoria Brittain
Kisangani - Uganda, Rwanda, Chad, Sudan and Zimbabwe - the war in Congo has redrawn alliances all over the continent. Victoria Brittain reports from Kisangani

Flying over the forest from the Ruwenzori mountains of south-western Uganda, one sees no sign of man: no road, no village, no puff of smoke across hundreds of kilometres of the northern Democratic Republic of Congo, until the concrete slash through the trees that is Kisangani international airport. The three- storey terminal building is empty and crumbling; air traffic control is one man with a 10- or 15- minute radio radius.

On the ground hundreds of rebel Congolese troops sprint from a truck to an unmarked cargo plane leaving for Goma airport and the southern front in the war against President Laurent Kabila. Another cargo plane disgorges barrels of fuel oil from Uganda or Rwanda, who back the rebels and now control half the country.

An occasional small plane brings in rebel leaders, or technicians and military officers from Kampala and Kigali. Large camps of Ugandan and Rwandan troops lie in the forest surrounding the airport.

The few vehicles at the airport belong to the military, and they control the communications in Kisangani, Congo's third city. It was taken by Rwandan troops early in the rebellion, which began last August. Ugandan and rebel troops moved in, and the city is now the prize of the rebellion and headquarters of their northern front.

Before this war Kisangani was a lively port on the Congo river. The capital, Kinshasa, is five days downstream, and it takes 10 days for steamers to make their way upstream against the fast-running brown current. But now the port is empty, its employees whiling away the days in the shade, playing draughts with beer bottle tops.

Nothing moves on the river except the wooden canoes of fishermen, local people crossing to market with bananas, cassava, goats, and an occasional monkey, or a diamond dealer on his way to or from a buying trip in the interior.

Modern Kisangani is a ghost town. Broad avenues become dirt roads leading past once- grandiose car showrooms, colonial villas, silent sawmills and an empty mosque.

The brewery is still in business, however, and so is the soap factory. The Ugandan army brought in caustic soda for the owners: a typically pragmatic view of priorities in this unusual war that has split Africa and redrawn allegiances across the continent. Everything from the humblest of civilian necessities to tanks and anti-aircraft batteries have to be moved by air, or occasionally water. Most of Congo's roads have long since vanished into forest footpaths.

There are up to a dozen fragmented fronts with very different styles of armies fighting for control of key towns and airstrips. There is no unified command structure on either side.

Last week the Zimbabweans fighting for Kabila were defeated by Rwandan and rebel forces on a southern front near the town of Kabinda. Eighty men were killed, four prisoners were taken, two tanks and two armoured vehicles were captured, and troops were scattered.

The defeat was denied in Harare, but the evidence is irrefutable, and the battle is likely to affect Zimbabwe's ability to sustain a long war in the face of domestic dissent.

Outside Kisangani many kilometres of defensive trenches surround the Ugandan chief of staff's forest headquarters. Young soldiers, on rotation from the front, peer out of them, and a machine-gun bristles at each command post. The forest is so dense that clearings for officers' bamboo huts, or soldiers' fires and cooking pots, are invisible without a guide.

Anti-aircraft guns and T55 Russian tanks are manned under the mango, frangipani and fan palm trees that shade the headquarters of Brigadier General James Kazini. He is the most powerful man in northern Congo, and the master of the northern rebels' military plans.

He has been fighting guerrilla wars on and off for 20 years, since he took part in the first serious attempt to overthrow Idi Amin, by the Tanzanian-trained military group led by Yoweri Museveni - now Uganda's president.

He was in the bush throughout Museveni's five-year war against Milton Obote's conventional army, and served two years in the northern wars that began Sudan's use of proxy armies against Uganda.

Two months ago Sudan bombed Kisangani, hitting the market and causing several civilian casualties. Two Sudanese prisoners of war have been taken in various battles, together with half-a-dozen Chadians, dozens of Ugandan rebels and hundreds of Congolese.

"Where the Sudanese are is where our interest is," the brigadier says. The Sudanese troops backing Kabila are now with Chadian units in Gbadolite, in Congo's north-west, site of the most notoriously extravagant of the late former president Mobutu Sese Seko's palaces.

Part of the northern front line, and the scene of the latest government counter-offensive, is Lisala, a full time zone west of Kisangani and accessible only by small plane or river. Lisala was Mobutu's birthplace and his riverside palace there now has shell holes from a recent attack.

"The fighting went on for four days," says Jean Pierre Bemba, leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, a rebel group based in Lisala and under the wing of Kazini.

Several hundred of his recruits drill under Ugandan officers. Men, boys and a few girls hold sticks for guns and march in plastic sandals, bare feet or wellington boots.

After three months' training the first 300 recruits were given guns and uniforms recently. "These boys will be a new army, a kind of army Congo has never had," Bemba says.