Stay-Home Protest in Zaire: A Calm Before Rebel Storm

As rebels approach, capital's quiet streets belie the tension

After six months of carrying on as though the rebellion in the east didn't exist, Kinshasa is preparing for another tense day of ville morte (dead town) protests today as the legal opposition continues to turn the screws on the besieged president, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Businesses were closed yesterday, and most people kept close to home for fear of reprisals from anti-Mobutu youths, who last week clashed with the Army in the capital. Yesterday, however, there were no rampaging gangs on the streets. If it weren't for the patrolling troops and the tension, the quiet streets would have seemed like a Sunday afternoon in an American suburb.

The normally bustling street market on the Avenue 24 Novembre was all but empty: Only the bread sellers turned up for work. Back streets in the city center were deserted, and traffic was light on the Boulevard du 30 Juin. The busiest people on the streets were the Western journalists.

Troops patrolled in trucks throughout the day, moving quickly to disperse any gatherings. When several journalists arrived at the house of Etienne Tshisekedi, the opposition leader who was fired as prime minister last week, a group of about 40 youths swarmed out to meet us, setting fire to car tires and protesting delightedly for the cameras.

Then the Army appeared, rolling down the road in a truck and firing into the air. The students fled, and the journalists found themselves briefly under arrest before the Army left again, but not before helping themselves to the car. A Belgian TV journalist who tried to drive away was fired on, dragged from his car, and arrested. He was later freed unharmed. Last week, journalists covering pro-Tshisekedi street protests in Kinshasa were attacked and beaten by soldiers, who robbed them of their documents, equipment, and even their shoes.

The ville morte is an increasingly popular form of African protest in which political activists promise to make life difficult for anybody attempting to go about their everyday affairs. This can mean looting of shops, stoning of cars, or even assault. Yesterday, however, there was little gang violence. Support for Mr. Tshisekedi is strong in Kinshasa - after 31 years of Mr. Mobutu's corrupt and heavyhanded rule, it is difficult to find anyone in Zaire, besides members of the Mobutist elite, who wants the ailing president to hang on to power.

THE opposition's success in bringing the capital to a halt is the latest in a series of blows to Mobutu's regime since rebellion erupted in the east last fall. Stoic after decades of corruption and periodic upheaval, Zaireans, both in the capital and elsewhere, have done their best to carry on as usual despite the rebels, who have conquered about half the country, and the worsening political crisis.

But yesterday, this city of about 4 million came to a standstill and - with the opposition proposing an escalating series of protests in the days ahead - normal life may be slow to resume. Concerned about violence that may erupt, either from the war or the demonstrations, Zaireans have begun stockpiling supplies and searching out hiding places to protect their valuables from looting.

Meanwhile, foreigners are making preparations to leave the city in case fighting breaks out. The last group of Japanese expatriates fled over the Zaire River for Brazzaville, Congo, last weekend. And American, French, and Belgian troops in Congo are on alert to evacuate their countrymen if necessary.

Today, the opposition is calling on all its supporters to join in a mass demonstration in cars and trucks: One Western diplomat says this would probably result in a wave of mass hijacking. Raising fears of a military crackdown, Mobutu's new military prime minister, Gen. Lukulia Bolongo, said this weekend that anybody attempting to demonstrate would face the full powers invested in the Army by a state of emergency declared last week.

If the opposition goes ahead with its street protest, conflict seems inevitable.

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