When the first column of troops from the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo/Zaire entered central Kinshasa this weekend, they did so by accident, losing their way in the broad streets of a city none had evidently visited before.
Some Westerners came across them late Saturday afternoon, a company of more than 100 heavily burdened men standing patiently single file along the deserted Rue des Poids Lourds. After an officer tried half-heartedly to shoo us away, we fell into step with them as they moved toward the city center.
They seemed dog-tired: A young private, more cheerful than the rest, said they had marched about 16 miles that day, fighting briefly along the way.
Their camouflaged combat uniforms, issued six months ago, were now blackened and greasy and their marching formation loose, but there was no mistaking their superiority over the government's untrained Army.
As the main body of the group loped along, half a dozen heavily armed scouts walked 200 yards ahead, cautiously checking each intersection before waving their comrades on. The rebels were silent and intent, scarcely even acknowledging the cheers and applause of the first small groups of civilians to see them advancing down the empty street.
Where the Rue des Poids Lourds bends into the city's main Boulevard de 30 Juin, they stopped to talk to a small group of delighted civilians, then abruptly doubled back and turned into Avenue Wagenia, running down to the Congo River's banks.
"They wanted to know where the port was," said a friendly old man from Kasai, head wrapped in a white headband to welcome the rebel troops.
The cautious advance continued, but the scouts walked right past the port buildings and the main body followed them. The small groups of locals were joined by clusters of European and Lebanese expatriates, who cheered and clapped from their compounds. "Of course we are happy to see them," a young Belgian woman shouted down from a perch on a villa wall. "All anyone wants here is peace."
The ambush, when it finally came, was not the type the soldiers were prepared for. Word had got out of their presence, and as they crossed the intersection with the Avenue de la Nation, a large crowd swept down from the Boulevard de 30 Juin, waving white cloths and green branches. "Congo Libr, Congo Libr" - Congo is Free! they chanted.
The order of the march was hopelessly disrupted as delighted civilians tried to embrace and dance with the troops. Too tired or too cautious, most could barely raise a smile.
In all the confusion someone must have asked the rebels where they were going, because once again the group had to retrace their steps. They had passed their destination by more than a mile, inadvertently liberating downtown Kinshasa in the process.
There was no resistance at the ferry port, where a small group of officials in white headbands waited patiently to open the gates. The officers and their scouts walked straight through and down onto the pier. At the end of the pier they halted among the silent ferry boats. For five minutes they stood there, leaning on their rifles and gazing out over the broad Congo, talking quietly among themselves as the sun set and the lights came on across the river in neighboring Brazzaville, Congo.
"Bien commence, bien fini," remarked a taciturn officer, who called himself Commandant Jave. Well-begun and well-ended.
The sky was now dark over downtown Kinshasa, temporarily rebel-free once again. Yesterday morning, rebel units drove in to occupy the city center on trucks, not even bothering to deploy for combat. Their long journey, which began eight months ago and 1,875 miles ago in South Kivu Province, was completed.