Palm Beach Hotel, I

FEATURE-Rebels run up huge bills in Congo hotel
09:03 p.m Nov 24, 1998 Eastern

By Todd Pitman

KISANGANI, Congo, Nov 25 (Reuters) - When rebels swept through this city in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo three months ago, it didn't take them long to find the nicest hotel in town.

As retreating government troops fled by boat down the mighty Congo river, the rebels -- a mixture of Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese soldiers fighting to oust President Laurent Kabila -- checked into comfortable rooms at the riverside Palm Beach Hotel.

Three months later, hotel staff say the rebels have run up a tab of nearly $70,000.

``They come, they eat, they drink, but they don't pay,'' said 43-year-old Charlette Bongumba, who has run the hotel -- a family business -- for the last four months.

``Before we used to make money. We had tourists, businessmen, diamond dealers. But now when you talk about the bill, they (the rebels) just laugh,'' Bongumba said.

Kisangani, a city of diamond shops and fading colonial villas perched in the middle of some of the densest jungle on earth, has been the military headquarters of the rebellion since it fell from government hands on August 23.

Dozens of gun-toting rebels, some with machine-guns and small rockets or grenades strapped to their chests, relaxed at the reception hall this week or lounged around hotel grounds chatting, sleeping and listening to radios.

Just behind the hotel on the banks of the broad, dark Congo river, rebel troops joked with local residents and haggled to buy cigarettes -- sold individually at small wooden kiosks.

Other rebel soldiers stood guard at the hotel's front gate or reclined behind the restaurant reception desk with rifles while officials held talks over fried bananas and beer.


While the rebel occupation may not be good for profits, it is not the first time hotel staff have witnessed such scenes.

Two years ago, another rebellion led by then guerrilla leader Laurent Kabila swept across the country, capturing Kisangani from government soldiers in March 1997.

Kabila moved into the Palm Beach Hotel and rebels then -- as now -- ran up massive, unpaid bills.

``Kabila stayed here in this room, but he didn't pay either,'' said Omar, a grey-haired sweeper in blue flip-flops pushing a broom through a modestly furnished two-bedroom villa equipped with air-conditioning and cable television.

Kabila's troops went on to oust one of Africa's longest ruling dictators, the late Mobutu Sese Seko, and many of them then became government soldiers.

They finally left this hotel in April 1998 but by then they had looted almost everything they could find, including television sets, refrigerators, mattresses and forks.

That tab -- in excess of $100,000 -- was never paid despite repeated appeals to Kabila's government in the capital Kinshasa.

Hotel staff say this time around, the Congolese troops have more unpaid bills than the Ugandan or Rwandan soldiers, mainly because many of them haven't been paid in months themselves.

With supplies from Kinshasa cut off by the war, military cargo flights from the Ugandan capital Kampala have brought in basics like soap, sugar and salt to keep the place running.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.