Sunglasses, Berets and 'the Revolution'

11Sep1998 DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Congo rebels battle for hearts and minds in Goma.

By Todd Pitman

GOMA, Congo, Sept 11 (Reuters) - Camouflaged four-wheel drive vehicles packed with rebels, rifles and grenade launchers cruise through the twilight of this dusty frontier town perched on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sporting sun glasses and red berets, the rebels call themselves liberators - but for most of this city's residents they are anything but.

"We're hostages," says Emmanuel, a shopkeeper motioning toward two rebel soldiers on a foot patrol through town.
"We never asked to be liberated. We never asked for war."

The rebels - a coalition of disgruntled soldiers, opposition politicians and exiled academics backed by neighbouring Rwanda - launched the revolt last month to topple President Laurent Kabila, who rose to power in May 1997 after a seven-month bush war against dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.Residents say the war against Mobutu was largely a popular affair but this time the rebels enjoy less popular support.

"People are tired of all this fighting. Two wars in two years - it's too much," says Alfred Mahuka, a Europe-trained dentist at Goma Hospital.

The city is no stranger to surprise.

Two decades ago, the immense Nyiragongo volcano, which broods over the horizon just north of Goma, spilled rivers of molten lava toward the town, changing - in the words of one resident - "hundreds of cattle and people to stone".

In early 1993, the city was plundered by its own soldiers after the army received its salary - long in arrears - in banknotes the government had declared illegal tender. Then came the refugees.

In 1994, one million Hutus from neighbouring Rwanda flooded Kivu provinces as Tutsi-led rebels fought their way to power, ending a state-sponsored genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were slaughtered.

A subsequent cholera outbreak in the Goma refugee camps littered the volcanic landscape with 30,000 corpses, overwhelming aid workers and providing shocking images of suffering. The refugees returned home two years later when Rwandan troops lobbed mortar bombs across the border into Goma at the start of the rebellion that brought Kabila to power.

Few inhabitants thought they'd see another rebellion less than two years later. They were wrong.

"We don't care who runs this country, we just want peace," said one man running a sidewalk photocopy machine.

In the fertile hills of North Kivu tensions have been brewing for years between the Nande, Hunde and Nyanga tribes on one side and the ethnic Tutsi Banyarwanda on the other.

In part because of political pressure, the Banyarwanda who migrated to eastern Congo hundreds of years ago are still perceived by "native" tribes as foreigners.

The question of their right to citizenship in the former Zaire helped spark Kabila's rebellion in October 1996.

It's no surprise that these days many Goma residents see their new masters - the rebels who launched the latest uprising - as a foreign force of Tutsi invaders from Rwanda.

Added to the mix is the very real presence of Rwandan intelligence and military officers, who witnesses and independent sources say provide logistical and military support in the form of ammunition and equipment.

"This is not a Congolese rebellion, it's an invasion," said one businessman running a roadside kiosk built of wood.

"You don't see the Rwandans here because they are hiding themselves. They are running things from behind, pushing our (Congolese) soldiers on like a herd of cattle."

All is not well in rebel-held territory.

On roads radiating outside of Goma, travellers report ambushes by bandits, Hutu Interahamwe militia and soldiers from the former Rwandan army, as well as clashes between traditional Mai-Mai warriors and the rebels.

When the rebellion got underway, most civil servants, including the mayor and the provincial governor, simply switched sides and joined the rebels to retain their positions. But winning the hearts and minds of the population at large is proving more difficult.

(C) Reuters Limited 1998.