Palm Beach Hotel, II

Rebels, war and unpaid bar tabs: Congo hotel survives in Africa's heart

July 11, 2004

By TODD PITMAN

KISANGANI, Congo (AP) _ It's counted diamond dealers, foreign soldiers and an ill-fated president among the guests. It's been occupied by rebels who left behind astronomical bar tabs. It's been splattered with bullets, littered with corpses, battered, broken, bruised and rebuilt.

In the city immortalized by Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," the Palm Beach Hotel has seen it all, and survived _ much like the country itself.

"It's been difficult really, but we managed. In Congo, we always manage," says Gaspar Mande, the soft-spoken chief receptionist.

The brainchild of a general once close to the late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, the Palm Beach opened in 1995 _ just in time for an anti-Mobutu rebellion that swept the country a year later.

Perched on the banks of the Congo River, the whitewashed, two-story hotel easily dominated its lowbrow, bedbug-ridden competitors, offering 19 air-conditioned rooms and villas equipped with satellite TV.

Though modest by world standards, the Palm Beach had much to offer. For the mosquitos, there was bug spray. For power outages, generators. And for water shortages, water tanks ensured a 24-hour supply.

When rebels led by Laurent Kabila captured Kisangani in 1997, it didn't take them long to check in. But not as paying guests. Heavily armed soldiers camped out six to a room, pillaging telephones, TVs, VCRs, alarm clocks and refrigerators.

Rebel commanders sent the hotel's staff home amid the chaos, but invited them back weeks later after realizing their troops were occupying a potentially lucrative source of income.

"They needed money, so they kicked the soldiers out," says one employee, Jeff Basilieki.

Congo has recently seen another surge in violence, with rebels battling government troops in the eastern city of Bukavu and gunfire rattling the capital, Kinshasa, twice since March. Kisangani, a northeastern city that was known as Stanleyville during Belgian colonial rule, has been spared so far.

Through the years, guests at the Palm Beach have included Lebanese diamond dealers, foreign journalists and Kabila, who went on to become president and was assassinated in Kinshasa in 2001.

The former leader slept in Villa 21, whose two rooms and salon now go for $180 a night.
"Kabila was just like the rest of them _ he didn't pay," Basilieki says.

In 1998, a second rebellion _ this time against Kabila _ brought another wave of penniless rebels.

Dozens slept in the courtyard with grenades and automatic weapons piled beside them. Some stood guard at the restaurant in wraparound sunglasses, holding rocket launchers like spears at the entrance to a tribal court.

Many a rebel had his hand wrapped around a cold beer.

According to Mande, a rebel group backed by the government of Rwanda left unpaid bills of $251,750, while their allies in a Ugandan-supported faction departed $55,000 in debt.
Asked how much of that was for alcohol, Mande says: "About half, at least."

In 1999, the Palm Beach became a military base for Ugandan troops, whose tented camps and machine-gun nests _ erected in the hotel gardens _ made them a target for Rwandan forces with whom they'd fallen out in a dispute over mineral wealth.

In the first of two battles, 11 Ugandan soldiers were killed on the hotel grounds.
"They piled the bodies in the toilet," Basilieki says. "They wanted to put them in the storage freezer, but it was destroyed."

During another battle in 2000, rockets and mortar shells burst all around, shattering every window in the hotel and slicing palm trees with shrapnel. Gunfire smacked into concrete walls, and one twisted shell landed in front of the reception desk.

Through it all, staff dutifully kept the restaurant open, serving meals and drinks to journalists until supplies ran out. During artillery barrages, the employees slept in the hallways and ran ducking to the river to fetch water.

Somehow, everybody survived.

The fighting was bad for business. But it brought a welcome bedfellow _ the United Nations.
Hundreds of well-paid U.N. staff checked in as peacekeeping operations expanded, bringing new life _ and money _ to a suddenly fully booked Palm Beach.

The profits helped repair blown-out air conditioners and windows, and pay for two billiard tables.

Prostitutes crowded the bar. There was dancing until dawn.
"Those pool tables used to be going around the clock," says Robert Powell, a U.N. logistics officer who works in the city. "It was great. There was nowhere else to go."

The good times faded, though, after many U.N. staffers shifted west to the strife-torn town of Bunia.

But life has been slowly improving since a 2002 peace deal that unified the nation _ once split into rival rebel zones and occupied by foreign armies.

Today, a small shop inside the hotel sells cell phone cards, offering links to the outside world unheard of a couple years ago.

Water and electricity supplies are still uneven, but Mande has big dreams for upgrading the hotel. In the garden out back, he envisions customers dining at a planned cafe, taking in pleasant river views.

"There's been a big change," he says. "These days, everybody pays."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.