Three weeks earlier, as my husband bathed our children, I switched on my laptop in Berlin. Ah, the deputy foreign editor has e-mailed me: "How would you feel about going to Zaire?"
I jumped. Why would a mother of two small children want to fly off to Kinshasa? Well, the chief occupational hazard of the Berlin posting is an occasional, overpowering attack of ennui. A change of scene would be just the thing.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 20, 1997 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Fall of Zaire--The names of journalists Paul McGeough and Bob Drogin (in vest) were transposed in a photo caption in some editions of Wednesday's Life & Style.
It didn't occur to me when I booked a room at the Inter-Continental to ask about the proprietor's links to Mobutu--and whether the hotel guests might feel the consequences. As it turned out, the hotel was in deep with the regime, in a 50-50 ownership scheme. Mobutu himself had a cozy pied-a-terre on the top floor.
In those first hours of the rebels' final push, the hotel was the place his loyalists came. Senior "traitors" were to be hunted down. When the search party that tramped through the hotel came up with no one worth killing, the soldiers left. The loyalists returned in a few hours to evacuate their friends. Bodyguards of the Mobutu elite came swirling through the brass-and-marble lobby, brushing up against liveried porters scurrying about with silver coffee pots.
Mobutu nieces, cousins and grandchildren tumbled out of the elevators, amid impressive mounds of Vuitton luggage, teddy bears and baby bottles. Right there in the lobby, government soldiers were peeling off their fatigues, shedding onto the marble floor the evidence of their poor political bet.
I joined a pair of Red Cross workers who wanted to drive around and take stock of the city: the young men running along with white welcome-the-rebels rags tied around their foreheads; the spooked, grinning peanut vendors trying to pretend it was just another day; the sprawled bodies oozing blood into the dust; eventually, the huge columns of gritty, poker-faced rebels in mismatched uniforms, taking up positions around the capital.
Sunday dawned bright and steamy. As Russell and I left the hotel, Effie--back in civilian clothes--jumped into the back seat. He tensed visibly when we found four trucks packed with hundreds of guerrillas only a few blocks away. A foot patrol was searching for one of Mobutu's generals. They settled for his housekeeper, leading a small man in tears past a jeering crowd.
"I'm not safe," Effie whispered. We dropped him at a friend's house and followed the rebels.
Cheering, chanting crowds flanked the convoy until we drove into Camp N'kokolo, bastion of Mobutu's hated civil guard. The mood suddenly was hostile. I parked so we could do interviews.
It was a mistake. When the rebels drove off, the crowd turned on us. "It's you white people who supported Mobutu," one man screamed as he pounded the car. "Go home and leave us alone," shouted another, his contorted face inches from mine. Our car had stalled; we managed to convince a few men to push and get us started.
We soon drove past a dozen or more bodies along the road. Red Cross teams in gauze face masks and rubber gloves tossed the corpses onto a pickup. We headed for Camp Tshatshi, home to Mobutu's palace and headquarters of his presidential guard. It had fallen to the rebels earlier that morning, and looting had begun.
Officers' homes were special targets. Men and boys swarmed over fences carrying chairs, beds and appliances. One man somehow perched a washing machine on his head. Another staggered under a car's transmission.
"Why are you pillaging?" a rebel angrily asked a man beneath a huge white leather armchair. The man dropped the chair; it disappeared again in minutes.
Soon the guerrillas came in force. Thousands of boys and men hiked by in mismatched camouflage fatigues and with an array of weapons. Some were barefoot. A few smiled; most did not.
Over at Mobutu's white concrete villa, a mob was in full fury. I smelled the strong stench of leaking gas so decided not to follow those who ran--many with lit cigarettes--to sack and trash the house. They smashed mirrors and carted air conditioners and clothes past two machine-gun bunkers, built like bookends in the yard.
Nearby, former Mobutu soldiers and sympathizers streamed to surrender at a rebel checkpoint. Most marched with heads down and hands held high. Everything from grenades to shotguns was dumped on a giant pile. The bearers were searched, then sent inside for questioning. The crowd cheered and laughed at each new arrival.
The war was over; old scores were being settled.
The rebels called a news conference in the hotel ballroom. I turned up at the appointed time, only to discover the venue had been changed. By 9:30 I was standing in burning sunshine in front of the government radio station, still waiting for the news conference to begin. There was just one shade tree to comfort a crowd of hundreds, and as the sun rose higher, the tree's shadow shrank. With a vague idea of going to an outdoor market and buying a hat, I flopped into the back seat of my hired car.