Rebels On Edge Of Victory Key City Is Teetering, And Residents Are Glad
If Kisangani, Zaire’s third-largest city, falls to rebels in the next few days, as appears likely, its capture would be the equivalent of American insurgents taking New York or Chicago.
Zaire’s 4-1/2-month-old uprising probably would be over.
For Kisangani, an economic hub in a strategic location, is also the base of the government’s two-month campaign to halt the onslaught of the rebels, who have corraled a 900-mile swath of territory since last October.
Some analysts fear that the conflict could split this already fractured country further, lead to years of anarchy and create a massive refugee crisis for the nine countries on the former Belgian colony’s borders.
The government has concentrated most of its few hundred mercenaries around Kisangani, sent military aircraft on bombing missions from the city and stockpiled hundreds of tons of ammunition at its airport.
“If the rebels take Kisangani, the morale of the Zairian army would be extremely low,” said Andre Kapanga, chairman of the All North American Conference on Zaire, a body of Zairian intellectuals who live in the United States and Canada. “If the base of their counteroffensive fails, where else would they resist the rebels?”
Kisangani, with an estimated 350,000 residents, holds a special place in the Zairian psyche.
Explorer-journalist Henry Morton Stanley founded it in the late 1800s, and it was called Stanleyville until the early 1970s. The city is believed to be the setting for V.S. Naipaul’s classic novel “A Bend in the River.”
Hemmed in by one of the world’s thickest and most beautiful tropical forests, Kisangani is situated on the powerful Zaire River near whitewater rapids that were once a major tourist attraction.
Its location on the river and along a major railway line helped make Kisangani an economic beacon for decades. Its position at the middle of the continent also made it an ideal center of commerce.
And nothing has made Kisangani more economically important than the diamond and gold mines surrounding it.
That is one reason the government rushed to shore up the city shortly after the rebels took several key cities and towns within the first two months of the insurgency.
The rebels, who have said they aim to capture Kinshasa, the capital, and overthrow longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, began rumbling toward Kisangani in December.
Since then, the insurgents, known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for Liberation (Congo-Zaire), have eased their way to the city by overwhelming several key towns and withstanding numerous airstrikes.
The city eagerly awaits them. In recent days, thousands of people have tried to flee, but they reportedly are scrambling to escape government soldiers, known for ransacking cities and ravaging residents.
Anti-Mobutu sentiment in Kisangani springs from the city’s economic downfall. Once sprinkled with fine hotels and elegant cottages, the city is a symbol of the government neglect that has eviscerated the country.
Thousands of tourists once flocked to Kisangani to challenge the rapids, take in the awesome forest and shop for items from Parisian dresses to American-made cars.
Today the city has one decent hotel. Its once-gorgeous houses are dilapidated and gray with grime. Many stores and businesses are barred or boarded shut.
“It used to be a jewel of a city,” Kapanga said. “But now it’s like the rest of Zaire. The people get no services. Everything is falling apart.”