Ngizo, the Major

6Oct1998 DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Latest Congo war divides embattled army again.

By Todd Pitman

GOMA, Congo, Oct 16 (Reuters) - Two years ago Major Siatilo Ngizo defended the sprawling river town of Kindu in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo against rebels advancing on foot through some of the densest forest on earth.

But the rebels - backed by Rwanda and led by then guerrilla leader Laurent Kabila - captured Kindu with ease, forcing Ngizo and thousands of government troops into a humiliating retreat.

This week the bespectacled, camouflage-clad Ngizo was back in Kindu, fighting Kabila's forces again. But this time Ngizo was on the rebel side, commanding troops in Congo's latest revolt who successfully battled their way into the town after a week of heavy shelling that forced most residents and loyalist troops to flee.

"It's good to be on the winning side," the 41-year-old Ngizo told Reuters in Kindu this week. "But it's not good to fight against our brothers."

Ten weeks of civil war have divided this vast central African nation and split the country's army - which officials say could number as many as 140,000 men - in two.

The rebels, who say they are fighting to oust President Kabila from power, hold a huge swathe of territory in the east and are making inroads into the central, mineral-rich provinces of Eastern Kasai and Katanga.

"We cannot take all of Congo by ourselves," Ngizo said. "We need our brothers in the (government) army to fight with us."

When Kabila's rebels swept toward the capital last year, defeated government soldiers in the former Zaire army (FAZ) - rarely considered a formidable fighting force - made a swift retreat across the country by foot, car, train and boat, looting towns and villages as they went.

Ngizo himself fled west from Kindu to the diamond city of Mbuji-Mayi and eventually found refuge with his comrades in the capital, Kinshasa.

But when the rebels seized Kinshasa in May 1997 and ousted veteran dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, they captured Ngizo and sent him - together with thousands of FAZ soldiers - to a re-education camp to learn "the ideology of Kabila".

A few months later, Ngizo was posted to the remote northeastern village of Aru as a battalion commander in Kabila's new army, renamed the Congolese Armed Forces (FAC).

When Congo's latest rebellion began in the eastern city of Goma in early August, Ngizo - sensing another impending rebel onslaught - radioed for reinforcements. Help never came.

"I had some friends on the other (rebel) side," Ngizo said. "So when the rebels came and took over my battalion, I joined them."

The rebels today boast a fighting force of some 60,000 men and say their strength is growing as the war spreads west.

Former FAZ troops like Ngizo, who has already fought against Kabila once, make easy recruits and are eager to digest the latest rebel propaganda denouncing him.

But paying a large fighting force is a formidable obstacle for the rebels, now struggling to manage the territories under their control.

During Mobutu's reign, FAZ soldiers were paid - if they were paid at all - as little as one dollar a month. Government soldiers were forced to look for ways to pay themselves, and by the early 1990's, the army had degenerated into a virtual crime syndicate, with troops more famous for looting citizens than protecting them.

Kabila did better, bringing an end to mass corruption and boosting salaries to as high as $100 a month.

But many rebel soldiers say they have only been paid since the latest revolt began, and not all have signed up voluntarily.

"There was no way to choose which side we wanted to be on. We are cut off from our comrades in Kinshasa," said one soldier in Goma from the mutinous 10th brigade, whose leaders launched the revolt. "But we have to work, we have to live. So now we have to be rebels."

(C) Reuters Limited 1998.