The Rwandan army frequently invited the small foreign press contingent based in Kigali with it on trips to Congo. On this particular one they wanted us to see the town of Kakuyu, which they had seized days earlier from Zimbabwean troops. The trip was worth it ... though I'd never want to do it again. Listen to a rare VOA radio dispatch from this voyage.
18Apr1999 CONGO: FEATURE - Rebels find Congo jungle enemy and friend. 02:11 GMTBy Todd Pitman
KABALO, Congo, April 18 (Reuters) - Balancing guns and radios precariously on their heads, Congolese rebels and Rwandan soldiers wade through a series of shoulder-high streams near the eastern town of Kabalo.
A dozen kilometres (miles) to the south, Zimbabwean troops backing the government of President Laurent Kabila fire 82-mm mortar rounds from behind a hill, sending the steady boom of artillery across a vast green savannah and black plumes of smoke into a clear sky.
The rebels - who took up arms last August with backing from Rwanda and Uganda - have been slow to advance across the Democratic Republic of the Congo in recent months, partly because of obstacles posed by a crumbling and often non-existent infrastructure.
Decades of misrule under the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who was ousted in another rebellion in 1997, left little money to build and repair roads, bridges and airstrips, leaving vast swathes of the country desperately isolated and without access to electricity or telephone lines.
The southern front - where rebels and their Rwandan allies are now eyeing the diamond-rich city of Mbuji-Mayi and copper and cobalt reserves farther south in Lubumbashi - is no exception.
Sturdy, four-wheel drive vehicles are little match for dilapidated sand and dirt roads hacked out of forests, and breakdowns are a daily occurrence made worse by heavy rains."You have to be very, very patient to drive in Congo," said Rwandan army chief of staff Kayumba Nyamwasa as troops struggled in darkness to free a Toyota Land Cruiser stuck in the mud on a dense bush track outside Kabalo, 1,300 km (800 miles) east of the capital Kinshasa.
"It's difficult here, we have problems to re-supply our troops, but we just keep trying," Nyamwasa said.
Rebels making the 133 km (82 miles) trip from Kabalo to Nyunzu - at best a six-hour journey - must cross three railway bridges perched high above rivers.
Nyamwasa, his Ugandan counterpart Jeje Odongo and rebel troops all crossed the bridges on foot and by starlight to avoid government-allied air raids. Each step of the way risks tumbling into the water below.
With no other roads and no choice, vehicles too negotiated their way awkwardly along the narrow tracks.
Soldiers packing grenades, small rockets and automatic weapons on the back of trucks face different dangers. Among them, being cut and scratched by roadside bushes and branches, and attacked by stinging black ants, spiders and swarms of aggressive Tsetse flies which tail moving vehicles.
IDEAL TERRAIN FOR GUERRILLAS
Rivers and streams snake across the countryside and form formidable natural barriers that either divide government and rebel forces or are crossed by canoes, motorboats, rubber rafts and makeshift barges.Despite the hassles, the terrain is well suited to guerrilla armies, something the rebels are quick to point out.
"They (Zimbabwean and government troops) are making tactical warfare with tanks and heavy equipment but we are guerrillas and we are fighting a guerrilla war," rebel military chief Jean-Pierre Ondekane told reporters in the village of Kakuyu, 40 km (25 miles) southwest of Kabalo.
Rwandan troops, with years of experience fighting rebel wars at home, are the dominant foreign force on the southern front, coordinating fighting and carrying out operations with equipment they can carry by hand.
Zimbabwe, in contrast, has equipped its regular army - which in the Congo numbers in the thousands - with helmets, tents, helicopter gunships, MiG fighter jets, tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
SURVIVING ALONG THE WAY
In Kakuyu, rebels cut off supply lines to government-allied troops in early April, forcing them out after a month-long siege.
Fleeing troops flattened tyres on vehicles left behind, laid mines and left leaflets calling on the Congolese fighting alongside Rwandan troops to abandon their allies and join the government side.
But the rebels seized working tanks, trucks and hoards of ammunition, as well as hundreds of metres of sandbagged defensive trenches dug in red mud.
The fighting has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee into the bush, leaving many villages - simple brick and mud huts with thatched roofs of straw - burned or abandoned.
Many huts are now occupied by rebels who live largely on what they find along the way, picking oranges from trees and drinking water from streams.
At a village turned into a military camp in Kakuyu, Rwandan troops sipped hot tea and recharged hand-held radios with an American-made solar panel while others opened tins of army rations and discussed the war.
(C) Reuters Limited 1999.
All photos Copyright 1999 By Todd Pitman.