KINSHASA, ZAIRE — For thousands of Zaireans waving everything white from paper to socks, the rebel columns that took the capital this weekend were liberators who freed them from the crumbling 32-year regime of Mobutu Sese Seko.
Residents were relieved at the fairly tranquil takeover of Kinshasa by 5,000 dignified but weary rebels. Many in Mobutu's Army barely put up a fight and either stripped off their uniforms or fled via the Congo River in speedboats with Mobutu's political elite.
For one resident, Charles Ngoy, his relief was as intense as his hopes of a new era for Africa's third-largest country.
"Food, jobs, democracy, human rights, and peace," he said, waving a "V" for victory sign and rubbing his stomach as a convoy of saviors rolled by. "That is what I expect."
The easy part for rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila was winning the hearts of people like Mr. Ngoy. The harder part will be keeping their loyalty and filling their stomachs.
Mr. Kabila's plans remain unknown to the 45 million people he now rules. He quickly changed Zaire's name to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kabila promised Saturday to establish a transitional government within 72 hours, although he gave no details about how that government would rule.
It will take both time and money to rebuild the country: He has inherited a land where nearly all institutional structures have broken down.
After weeks of American and South African efforts to persuade him to exit, diplomats were relieved at the departure of Mobutu, who fled to his jungle retreat of Gbadolite on Friday.
But Kabila - a relative unknown for much of his 30-year guerrilla career - is unproven in the political arena, and whether he has sufficient political maturity to include his opponents in a new government is still unclear. No one has an idea what this new "national salvation government" will be like or who will take part in the constituent assembly Kabila has pledged to form within 60 days.
He needs Western aid to rebuild the country but has given mixed messages as to when democratic elections - on which much assistance is contingent - will be held. South Africa, the United States, the United Nations, and the Organization for African Unity have all signaled hopes that Kabila would have a broad-based government.
Kabila himself is not expected to explain his intentions until he arrives in Kinshasa in a few days.
"All we know is that we have Kabila the president," says one Western diplomat. "We hope he will be pragmatic, but we don't know."
What is likely to unnerve many in the capital is the sight of the advance guard of ethnic Tutsis. In this fractured country of hundreds of ethnic groups, Kabila must move quickly to reassure Zaireans that he is not creating a new elite of the minority Tutsis, seen by many as an occupying force from neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.
Western critics will be looking carefully at Kabila's attitude toward human rights. His image has been sullied by reports his rebels have attacked tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees in territory under his control and by rebels blocking aid groups' access to the refugees.
However, contributing to Kabila's image as savior to a ruined nation was the fact that the occupation of Kinshasa occurred with minimal violence - even though this had more to do with the cowardice of the outgoing regime than Kabila's leadership.
Despite reports of some executions and revenge killings, some limited looting, and shelling of a military camp Saturday night, the takeover of Kinshasa was fairly peaceful. An official Red Cross report listed the deaths "in the tens," and the streets in most areas were calm by Sunday afternoon despite an effective political vacuum.
Rebels come in for a 'soft landing'
A "soft landing" actively pushed by the US - in which the government military would not resist the advancing rebels - almost went wrong. The fact that it didn't adds to Kabila's allure as liberator.
The rebel takeover began on Saturday morning with the murder by Mobutu's elite presidential guard of moderate Army chief of staff, Gen. Marc Mahele Lieko Bokungu.
For a tense 10 hours there were fears the city would descend into chaos if the Army tried to fight the rebels or plunder civilians.
Worries about a bloodbath escalated when hundreds of women and children of Mobutu's inner circle and officers of the presidential guard in full regalia poured into the city's premier hotel, the Intercontinental, parading the corridors with automatic weapons and hiding in the rooms by the dozens.
Mobutu's son, Mobutu Kongolo, managed to supervise their evacuation in convoys of Mercedes and minivans to the Congo River after declaring that they would put up no resistance. The final remnants of the regime escaped by speedboats with their designer-leather luggage intact across to Brazzaville, Congo.
Shortly thereafter, the rebels advanced from the airport and secured the radio station. Relieved civilians grabbing whatever white cloth they could find emerged from their houses to welcome their liberators - and an uncertain future.