LUBUMBASHI AIRPORT, ZAIRE — One old Zaire hand, an African-American businessman, took it upon himself to enlighten the journalists staying in the Memling Hotel, in Kinshasa's center, about the Zairean Armed Forces [FAZ]. Had we noticed, he remarked one day, the number of off-duty soldiers hanging around outside the hotel?
"When a FAZ [soldier] puts his foot down next to yours, he doesn't want to dance," he said. "He's shopping for shoes."
Ill-disciplined, badly trained, and often unpaid, the soldiers sometimes act as a law unto themselves. Two weeks ago, when a group of Western journalists tried to get to the southern city of Lubumbashi before it fell to the rebels, Zairean soldiers refused to recognize our painstakingly and expensively amassed collection of credentials and held us in isolation at the airport overnight.
Drunken soldiers barged in and out of the lounge all night, aggressively questioning us on who we were and where we were from. A FAZ lieutenant, who seemed to be called Coco, left us in no doubt of his feelings in regard to the Western press in general, and American journalists in particular.
"Speaking to you frankly," he said, "If it was left to me, I would kill you all now and bury you where your bodies would never be found."
Coco was a talkative soul, and as the long night wore on, he expounded on the Western conspiracies to reenslave Africa. He was particularly proud of his warrior ancestry and his record in the war against the rebels.
"I fought at Goma in November," he said, rocking back and forth as he cradled his rusty AK-47 rifle. "I fought at Bukavu, at Uvira, and - most recently - at Kalemi." All those towns have been taken by the rebels.
We wanted to ask him when, at that rate of progress, he thought he would reach Cape Town, but somehow it didn't seem like a good idea.
Coco left us in the end, and we slept as best we could on the wooden benches and concrete floor of the airport lounge.
It was cold and uncomfortable, but, like the people of the capital, Kinshasa, at least we had the FAZ to protect us