KISANGANI, ZAIRE — Thousands of Rwandan refugees are believed to be hiding in the dense forest between Kisangani and Goma, but the situation is so volatile here that international aid workers say they are unlikely to come out and seek help.
This faded city on the banks of the Zaire River has disintegrated into bedlam as Zairean Army troops rampage in humiliated retreat from the eastern front.
No one in charge
The soldiers' gunfire and looting has reduced this town of 200,000 people into trembling chaos. From the moment one disembarks at the airport - swarming with Army deserters - and begins the perilous drive into town in an armed convoy, one thing is clear: No one is in charge.
Hundreds of ragtag troops loot food, clothing, and cars from anyone who crosses their path. Unpaid for months, they sprawl at the airport, converging upon landing planes demanding to go home.
With gunfire popping throughout the town, businesses are shuttered, and anyone with money hires personal guards just to drive through the streets.
For aid workers, desperately seeking a reconnaissance point to evaluate how to search for and get food to thousands of Rwandan refugees and Zaireans displaced by the fighting, Kisangani has become a symbol of paralyzed frustration.
International relief workers, who arrived as an advance team before the deployment of the proposed international intervention force, say that soldiers have scared away villagers along the 390-mile stretch of forest between here and Goma, now under Tutsi rebel control.
The unstable situation, they say, makes it impossible for anyone to drive or even fly over the area.
"We can't take the road. Landing a plane would be suicidal beyond Kisangani," says one aid worker, sitting in the heavily guarded Palm Beach Hotel Kisangani. Yards away on the terrace, eight soldiers man machine-guns on tripods ready to trade fire with the source of shooting, which sounds ominously close.
Jerry Selenke, an American who runs the local Catholic mission, the logistical center for nongovernmental organizations, says the mission sent a tanker truck with fuel and two other vehicles with supplies to Lubutu, halfway to Goma.
One of the cars never arrived, he says, "They just went off the air[waves]."
Hiding at the sound of planes
Brother Selenke suspects that thousands of displaced Zaireans and some Rwandan refugees have been trekking along the road toward Kisangani, running into the forbidding jungle when they hear planes or cars pass by.
People flying in small planes about 100 miles from Goma saw groups of hundreds of people that would disperse immediately into the woods when the planes passed overhead.
But some of the hundreds - no one really knows how many - of weary, displaced Zaireans who do finally make it to Kisangani find to their dismay that the very soldiers who made them flee are now running riot through the town.
An attempt at order
The little order that has been maintained in the city seems to be due to a leading businessman, who has secured the loyalty of some of the troops by providing them with food.
But even his authority seems to be diminishing. He canceled an appointment with journalists on Wednesday, apologizing that it was too dangerous to drive through town. "His bodyguard was shot," explains the woman at the hotel who took the message.
The city's utter chaos has convinced humanitarian workers that only an international intervention force can clear the way to bring in urgently needed food and other relief supplies.
It is still not clear what role this town will play in the humanitarian effort, but those here believe a political solution in this central African country is necessary if any relief effort is to succeed.
"People here in the town are pretty terrified about what is going on in the military," says one aid worker, ducking reflexively as another round of gunfire crackles from the street.
"If Kisangani is to be set up as a staging point, somehow the force would have to restore order in the town and along the road," he says.