How the Little Guys Plan Career Moves in an African War

Siege mentality grips Zaire capital as a rebel army nears. Some stock up. Others wait to loot.

On the streets of Zaire's capital, a thief and a box salesman are each making plans for one of the world's longest-ruling dictators to fall - soon.

The two men, who are also both university students, operate just 30 yards from each other. They rely on their respective trades to pay $90 for a yearly school fee.

Like many in this large African city, they anxiously await the arrival any day of a rebel army led by emerging strongman Laurent-Desir Kabila, who is set to end the 31-year dictatorship of President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Living out the final days of the Mobutu era, the thief and the box salesman embody the way that some 4 million Zaireans in Kinshasa are running for cover in a capital suspended in nervous limbo.

Salesman Filly Bongole plans to hide his cardboard cartons in the ceiling of his modest home. He'll then lock the door and hope for the best as the two armies do battle.

The thief, in contrast, anticipates a looting wave that will allow him to steal more televisions. "I am from a poor family. This is my insurance for the future," explains the thief, who preferred not to be named.

Says Mr. Bongole: "I fear looters will take the little I have."

With rebel leader Kabila's men advancing from 200 miles away, Kinshasa's resilient residents are more than pondering the changes that are coming.

The rebels have taken half the country in seven months, including the rich diamond, gold, and copper territories. Mr. Kabila has been welcomed as a liberator in most towns he has conquered with little fighting. But many in Kinshasa fear that this last prize, the capital, will not be won without bloodshed.

What is taken as a given by many here is that corrupt, unpaid government soldiers will mount a last violent stand, not necessarily to defend the city, but to plunder in the chaos.

Past binges of le pillage traumatized many Zairean cities in 1991 and 1993, when soldiers rioted over low wages. Kinshasa's residents hope this will be the final such incident before a new era begins. For three decades, Mobutu has bankrupted the country, treating Zaire's treasury like his piggy bank. Many people get by either through corruption or charity.

With civil servants and other workers going unpaid for months, survival for many in Kinshasa means just one meal a day. For some, like the thief, another pillage would give him enough loot to get by for another year. For others, more destruction is too terrible a thought.

"We have lost so much that we have nothing more to lose," says Veronique Kapinga, showing the splintered door that she locked unsuccessfully in 1993 to keep marauders out. The matriarch has nowhere to hide in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her 12 children and assorted grandchildren.

Propaganda from both sides and uncertainty about Kabila's exact intentions has fed the rumor mill of Kinshasa like dry twigs thrown on hot coals.

First, there was the story that the US troops poised across the river in Congo to evacuate American citizens also planned to assassinate Mobutu. That was followed by the rumor that Mobutu's supporters had a list of opposition leaders and foreigners they planned to hunt down and murder.

The latest tale swirling through Kinshasa is that 400 crack Chinese troops have been posted here to defend the city.

Whether or not there is any credence to these stories is irrelevant. What is important is that they feed a siege mentality that grows by the day.

Unlike Zaireans such as Mrs. Kapinga, many foreigners have a well-planned exit route, thanks to the thousands of Western troops across the river in Brazzaville, Congo.

Nonetheless, many foreign diplomats and businessmen have sent their families and nonessential staff abroad for extended "vacations" until the fracas dies down.

At the offices of one major international company, the sole expatriate left works only half-days because there is so little business to be done in this uncertain climate. He passes the idle hours gazing out of the window with a pair of binoculars, looking at the evacuation drills on the river.

While those who can afford it stock up on emergency food supplies, government officials indulge in last-minute bribe-taking. For instance, the Information Ministry inexplicably revoked foreign journalists' accreditation. It then issued new ones, requiring that the $30 fee for the service be paid again.

Recently, a reporter who refused to pay a civil guard soldier a $100 bribe for an interview received an irritated rebuke.

"I won't have a job in a month," explained the officer. "I have to build up savings before Kabila comes."

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