Mobutu Sese Seko's old summer palace in the lakeside town of Goma has seen better days. The gold-rimmed wallpaper in the foyer is peeling, the glass grape clusters adorning the desk lamps are chipped, and there is no water to fill the blue marble jacuzzi in the mirrored bathroom suite.
Rwanda-backed rebels, who took over this town almost three years ago, have turned the palace into their headquarters, pasting paper signs on the heavy wood-paneled doors ("President" reads one hand-written scrap, "Chief of Staff"announces another, hanging lopsided by a piece of Scotch tape) and holding strategy meetings on the vast, unmowed lawns.
It is here that these rebels - the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD)- monitors the progress of its troop disengagements and the slowly advancing peace process. The RCD is among two main rebel groups and six nations fighting in this swath of central Africa.
Peace on the horizon?
On Tuesday, Congo's feuding groups agreed to meet in July to discuss a timetable for talks about democratic rule. A UN Security Council delegation is traveling through the region this week, trying to revive the 1999 Lusaka peace accord. A key element in the accord is a dialogue involving rebel groups, opposition parties, civil groups, and the government.
During a recent interview, RCD leaders wondered about their personal futures, spouted ideology, and tried to articulate the significance and the necessity of the bloody years of revolution.
President Joseph Kabila's ascent to power in the Congo three months ago - and his willingness to go forward with the peace process his father had all but shunned - has put the onus on these and other rebels who long claimed there was no one to talk to in Kinshasa.
"The excuse for this war evaporated overnight with Laurent Kabila's assassination," says one Western diplomat. "Laurent was the 'no' man. Joseph is the 'yes' man, and as such the new darling of the international community. The rebels are stuck looking like the power-hungry spoilers they have been all along."
But RCD Secretary General Azarias Ruberwa defends his movement's three years of warfare against the government in Kinshasa, saying: "Revolution was the only way to bring about change. We could not have reached this stage without it."
A thin, mild-mannered lawyer, Mr. Ruberwa is said to be the strong man in the triumvirate rebel leadership. "I am not a soldier. I am a diplomat and a thinker," says Ruberwa, "but I know that those who went about their protest without violence have been taken out of the picture."
You cannot negotiate with a dictator, says Ruberwa, referring to the now-deceased Laurent Kabila. "They needed pressure. They needed an ultimatum."
The rebel leader claims that the RCD troops - which he says number more than 40,000, but which are generally believed to be somewhere between 10,000 to 20,000 - are still in their "defensive positions," ready to fight "to the last man" if the process falls apart.
"We want peace," explains the youthful Chief of Staff Sylvain Buki, "but we cannot give it away just like that"
In the mid-1990s, Ruberwa and many others in the rebel leadership - fought alongside Laurent Kabila and helped him oust President Mobutu, whose rule was marked by widespread corruption and economic decline. Acting as a speech writer then, Ruberwa penned Laurent Kabila's inaugural speech as president.
"I should have known then that we had fought in vain," says Ruberwa, remembering how Kabila crossed out a section which spoke of deriving his power from the being a representative of the people.
"We had suffered so much for the victory, and we had hope for a fair, inclusive new era - then we were disappointed," he says. "Kabila forgot who it was who had carried him to power...and we had to step back and remind him."
The young Joseph Kabila, admits Ruberwa, is a different story. "He is a calm man; he was a soldier. He has a good character. I know him," he says, but then adds, "we call on him to finish looking after the transition and then allow for elections. He does not have legitimacy here, and we want dialogue and we want reconciliation and we want power sharing."
Ruberwa sneezes then adds: "And I will be president one day. Write that down."
"We need to figure out why we are so miserable here," he concludes. "We need to stop the confusion between public and private monies, limit the power of the president, install a system of good governance, protect our minorities and be able to provide our citizens with normal opportunities to get food, education and health... If we do not do this, nothing has been achieved."
Humanitarian aid workers here, however, say that Ruberwa, like many of his comrades, is spouting empty promises and making up ideology as he goes along.
"The rebels have not done things good for the population in the East. Their unpaid soldiers have terribly harassed the villagers, and things like education, health, and transport routes have all deteriorated," says one aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity because his agency continues to operate in the region.
"These are front men for the Rwandans, and if they care about anything, it is for their own power. Now, they are trying to feed us all the right 'lines' in order to position themselves for the upcoming intercongolese [peace] dialogue. But they are the cause of many of the problems, not the solution," he says. "They are hated by those whose interests they claim to represent."
A recent UN report, meanwhile, implicated the RCD, along with the other rebel groups and the invading armies, in the exploitation of the country's natural resources.
The RCD in particular was mentioned in connection with the pillaging of coltan (columbite-tantalite) a heavily mined mineral which is used in manufacturing chips that go into high tech items like mobile phones. An RCD spokesman says "99 percent of the report is false."
Forgetting but not forgiving
Popular or not, pillagers or not - the RCD remains a force to contend with.
Next month, the RCD leadership intends to be at the table to begin the peace dialogue outlined by the Lusaka accord.
"It should go well," promises Ruberwa. "We are a people who can forget. Not forgive completely, but forget." And anyway, he concludes,
"We are tired of war. We are predisposed to peace."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor