Zaireans Ask Mobutu Army: Just Whose Side Are You On?

Soldiers, seeing war's end, plunder capital

The three Zairean soldiers came to the door looking for cellular phones. They couldn't find the man of the house, so they forced his wife, Marie-Jose Ehomo, to show them where the phones were.

"They said they wanted the telephones because we were using them to speak to the rebels," Mrs. Ehomo says.

The soldiers seized the phones, along with a suitcase of dollar bills, pushed Ehomo into a minibus, beat her, and ripped off her watch and clothes. Afterward, they threw her onto the road, accusing her of aiding the rebels of Laurent-Desir Kabila.

"They said we were collaborators and that I was lucky to be alive," Ehomo says.

As rebels move within two days' march of Zaire's capital, soldiers of the president's elite guard are using the prospect of imminent defeat as a pretext for terror. Over the past 10 days, they have been going from house to house in La Cit, the poor district of the capital, looking for alleged rebel infiltrators.

They storm into houses like the Ehomos', using the hunt for revolutionaries as an excuse to steal every cent they can before the corrupt regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko falls.

Rebel radio yesterday claimed that rebels had already infiltrated Kinshasa, but such reports could not be independently confirmed.

At last estimate, Mr. Kabila's rebels were about 60 miles away from Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, and advancing fast. Talks brokered by the United States and South Africa aimed at arranging a peaceful end to Mr. Mobutu's 31-year reign concluded Sunday without a resolution.

The dictator refused to step down immediately, and Kabila, who controls three-quarters of the country, insisted he would press ahead with his military advance.

Yesterday, Kabila said he would guarantee the safety of Mobutu and his family if the despot agreed to hand over power within eight days. Otherwise, he said, he would chase Mobutu out of Kinshasa.

As the rebels advance, violence by government soldiers toward the citizens they are supposed to defend increases with every mile.

"There's always been trouble with soldiers, but the last few days have grown far worse," says Kinshasa resident Roger Kalomba.

"The troops claim they are looking for Kabila's supporters and ambush you on the roads," he says. "If you have nothing, they take your belt and shoes. Soldiers are making profits going from door to door saying they are looking for the rebels. Then they rob, or kill."

Mr. Kalomba should know. The wooden shelves of his grocery store, Boutique Prestige, are empty of cans and sacks after four waves of soldiers helped themselves, holding him at gunpoint.

Many Kinshasa residents have had enough of Mobutu's corrupt rule and the unpaid soldiers who have terrorized them with impunity. They view Kabila as a savior. Others are unsure what rebel rule will bring, but are willing to give Kabila the benefit of the doubt.

It is still unclear whether these violent shakedowns in the poorer areas are the start of a much-feared looting spree that could spread through the rest of the city before Kabila's troops march in.

Such a scenario is like a bad flashback for residents of Kinshasa, who vividly remember le pillage of 1991 and 1993, when government soldiers went on a rampage after not being paid.

Most military analysts expect that Mobutu's poorly motivated Army will not mount a defense of the city when Kabila comes and will instead prey on ordinary citizens in a final burst of plundering.

Expecting the worst, the wives and children of the political elite have sought refuge in a well-guarded hotel or left the country. Major officials and generals have visas to go abroad.

Western embassies, meanwhile, have sent away nonessential expatriate staff. Thousands of Western troops, including Americans, are stationed across the river in Brazzaville, Congo, to evacuate their nationals.

While soldiers plunder the poor sections of town, for now life in the city center goes on as normal. The exchange rate has been stable the past two weeks. Shops are filled with goods. Only the empty streets and restaurants at night and the nervous anticipation indicate that something is wrong.

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