KINSHASA, Zaire — Wilfred Batumike paused Sunday after explaining how he and the 100 boys and men in his rebel unit marched across this immense country on foot to topple dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
"No, there was one day when we were taken by trucks," the 20-year-old medic admitted.
They lived off the land, or on food given by villagers along the way. "But never enough," he said shyly. "Sometimes I passed a week without eating."
They were not paid. Nor do they expect to be.
"We're volunteers," he declared proudly, clutching a Belgian-made assault rifle and a small plastic sack containing his unit's meager medical supplies. "We want change in our country. We don't want money."
Batumike's extraordinary story of a rigorous regimen and improbable idealism helps explain how Laurent Kabila's rebel army defied all odds and conquered a country a quarter as large as the United States in less than eight months.
But little is known and much is feared about the ragtag rebel force that now occupies this capital. Witnesses said Sunday that the rebels executed at least two men accused by angry mobs of being brutal members of Mobutu's defeated army or security forces.
But no mass arrests or other abuses were reported. The rebels not only abstained from looting, they fired into the air or chased people with sticks to prevent it.
"We've been told to stop the pillage," Batumike explained. "Because if they take everything, it's us, it's the people of Zaire, who will pay."
After months in the jungle, the several thousand guerrillas who snaked through the city in long green lines had the appearance of a classic African bush army. Their ages ranged as wildly as their uniforms, weapons and languages.
"Some are 10 to 15 years old," Batumike said of his unit. "But there are some old men too who are 60 or 70."
They were dressed in a motley hodgepodge of olive-drab uniforms and ragged camouflage fatigues from armies around the world. They wore no insignias or indications of rank. A few sported baseball caps or berets. One youth strutted under a marching-band leader's hat, complete with multicolored plume.
Some wore high rubber or leather boots. Others hiked in rubber flip-flops or tattered sneakers. Many walked barefoot. One sported shiny black business shoes and silk socks pulled high over his patched trousers.
Their weapons were equally eclectic. Most carried AK-47 assault rifles or other automatic rifles with extra ammunition clips taped together. Others lugged rocket launchers or mortars, hauled ancient, wheeled machine guns or were draped with ammunition belts and grenades. One carried four rockets wrapped in a tea cozy on his head.
Some spoke French, Zaire's official language. At least a few knew English. One man spoke Portuguese, saying he had come from neighboring Angola. The bulk appeared to know only Lingala, Swahili and other regional tongues and dialects.
And most, clearly under orders, refused to talk to the people for whom they claim to have fought. Perhaps some were just exhausted. One, no older than 13, carefully put down a box of ammunition and collapsed under a tree as his column hiked silently past.
Kabila, who pronounced himself head of state Saturday after his troops entered Kinshasa, is president of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the political coalition behind the rebellion.
But the alliance's army remains a mystery. "We don't even know who the commander of this army is," admitted a Western diplomat here. He speculated that the top command was even recast two months ago.
"At first, they were very cautious," he said. "They planned carefully, took few risks and saved ammunition. They approached their targets from three directions, giving the [enemy] a way out. Then they'd wait two to three weeks before hitting somewhere else."
Those tactics changed significantly after the insurgents took the city of Kisangani in mid-March. "The rebels moved very quickly after that," the diplomat said. "And they got a lot more aggressive. . . . I guess they knew nothing could stop them."
Batumike said he was at Kisangani as well as virtually every other major city the rebels advanced on after the war erupted in eastern Zaire last fall. If his story is true, he and his men hiked and struggled through thousands of miles across some of the world's most impenetrable terrain as they zigzagged north, then south and ultimately west to Kinshasa.
Batumike said he never lost hope. "We knew we would come here," he said with a grin. "Because we fight for the truth, we knew we couldn't fail."
The rebels first emerged in public in September, citing their support for ethnic Tutsis being persecuted in eastern Zaire. But Batumike was secretly recruited three months earlier when he was still a technical school student.
His orders were to enlist in Mobutu's army to get military training. When he graduated, he deserted to help the rebels capture his hometown, Bukavu, in October.
Batumike said he plans to stay in the army of the nation Kabila calls the Democratic Republic of Congo. "I want the population to be free," he said. "I want to live in a democratic country."