Trail of Triumph: Two Rebels' March Across Zaire

Soldiers who trudged 2,000 miles to oust a dictator are eager to end corruption.

Blaise Mbdongo ended his eight-month march across Zaire Saturday. The rebel didn't fire a single bullet in the takeover of the capital - the final step of Laurent-Desir Kabila's campaign to topple President Mobutu Sese Seko.

For nearly 2,000 miles, Mr. Mbdongo tramped all over a country the size of Western Europe, wearing out two pairs of shoes in his march toward a new future for his country.

Sitting in the afternoon heat with fellow fighters at the gates of the captured residence of the former premier, Mbdongo has the air of a man so exhausted and foot weary that he hasn't quite processed the magnitude of his achievement.

When the rebellion began in October as an ethnic uprising by the minority Tutsi in the east, few believed Mr. Kabila's claims that it would lead him all the way to the capital.

But Mbdongo and his companions say they always kept the faith during the arduous journey: "We always knew it would be difficult. But we had the courage to come here and believed we could do it."

To keep his sense of purpose during the long march, Mbdongo clutched a folded color photograph of a prominent politician, Azuluni Bembe, whom he described as a "true thief of Zaire." For him, Mr. Bembe symbolized the corruption and callousness of the political elite, who robbed the country's coffers and let its roads and schools slide into disrepair during nearly 32 years in power.

Mbdongo is a member of the Banyamulenge, the Zairean Tutsis whose threatened expulsion from the country sparked the October rebellion. "My father was a [college] graduate, but we lived in a straw house. I was harassed by the Zairean military. This was not a good life. Even before Kabila came to us, we contemplated taking action against Mobutu," he says.

A teenager, Mbdongo joined the uprising at the start in Bukavu. His father had regaled him with stories when he was a boy that fed his dislike of Mobutu and the soldiers that harassed his family in their hometown of Goma. When Kabila began calling for recruits, Mbdongo's father gave him clothes and shoes and encouraged him to go to the front.

The march took him west to Kisangani, Zaire's third-largest city, and then south to the mining center of Lubumbashi, before snaking northwest to the capital, Kinshasa.

The defense expected to be mounted there by the more than 5,000 troops of the elite presidential guard melted the moment the rebels reached the airport, and they walked into the city with little difficulty.

"I shot maybe three bullets. The government soldiers took off their uniforms and ran away naked," says another rebel, Jacques Tambwe.

Mr. Tambwe was studying to be a schoolteacher before he joined the rebels. "I saw the population was mistreated by Mobutu and his Army. We were encouraged to fight because there was no hope for us under Mobutu."

The two men, who joined the uprising together, agreed that the fighting was fiercest at the beginning in South Kivu Province. But they say the hardest battle of all was at Kisangani, the decisive turning point in March when the government's threatened counteroffensive evaporated.

There, with the help of Serb, Rwandan, and Angolan mercenaries, Mobutu's government mounted what was effectively its last stand.

For the most part, the rebel victories were like Kinshasa, where Mobutu's underpaid troops deserted or ran away with virtually no resistance. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that about 200 people were killed. Many of these were revenge killings and executions by the rebels and members of Mobutu's presidential guard.

Like many of the tired rebels who entered Kinshasa last weekend carrying only their weapons, Tambwe and Mbdongo have the elongated features and lanky frames of Tutsis, who also hail from Rwanda. That country's Tutsi leaders were reportedly staunch supporters of the rebel uprising. Other members of the conquering band spoke the Portuguese of Angola, whose government was angered by Mobutu's support of its rebels, and the English and Swahili of Uganda.

But these two men deny claims by Western diplomats that the movement was aided by Ugandan, Rwandan, and Angolan fighters.

Now that they had arrived at their ultimate destination, there was a certain sense of anticlimax. The only thing that is clear is that having won the war, if the lopsided conflict could be called a war, they saw their future in defending their new government.

"I want to stay in the Army," says Tambwe. "We've just won the fight, and I'm encouraged by military life."

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