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Uncertainty Looms During Zaire's Civil War

The New York Times' Howard French talks about events in Zaire. Over the weekend talks began between Zaire's president Mobutu Sese Seko and the rebel leader trying to overthrow him, Laurent Kabila. Talks have halted over a disagreement between the two: Mobutu agreed to relinquish power but only to a transitional authority that would organize national elections. But Kabila wants power handed over to him. Meanwhile rebel forces are closing in on Kinshasa. Talks will resume in six to eight days.

46:00

Other segments from the episode on May 6, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 6, 1997: Interview with Howard French; Review of Edna O'Brien's novel "Down by the River."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 06, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 050601np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Zaire Update
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, people are waiting nervously to see what will happen next. President Mobutu Sese Seko, the country's dictator, is on his way out. The question is which exit he will leave by. The troops, led by his long-time rival Laurent Kabila, have already taken over most of the country and are now approaching the capital.

Meanwhile, Nelson Mandela has been trying to broker an agreement between Mobutu and Kabila in which Mobutu, who has advanced prostate cancer, would peacefully relinquish power. Mobutu has ruled the country ever since declaring himself president in 1965. Zaire, formerly known as the Congo, got its independence from Belgium in 1960.

Earlier today, we phoned Howard French, who is in Kinshasa covering the civil war for the New York Times. We talked about the war and his experiences covering it. I asked him to describe the atmosphere today in Kinshasa as rebel troops approach the city.

HOWARD FRENCH, NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER: It's a very strange atmosphere. On one level, the city is remarkably calm. People are going about their business as if nothing in particular were happening -- that is, ordinary people.

And then at a whole 'nother level of society, things are very tense. The wealthy here are either packing up and leaving or trying to figure out how to get out or what will happen to them if they don't get out.

So, you have two different realities here -- the reality of the common people are sort of looking forward to the change that everyone expects to take place here soon. And the reality of the elite, which is very much dreading the unknown that lies ahead.

GROSS: Why are some people who aren't rich looking forward to the change? I mean, I can understand why they want Mobutu to leave, but what are they looking forward to about Kabila?

FRENCH: People don't really know very much about Kabila, but the one thing that they do know is that Kabila offers the first real chance that most Zairians have seen in their entire lives to get rid of Mobutu, and Mobutu has been in power here for 32 years nearly, and has driven this country into the ground and Zairians are very eager for change.

Because of that, I have the feeling in talking to people that almost, well I won't say unanimously, but a very high percentage of Zairians are ready to welcome Kabila with open arms, even though Kabila remains, in fact, an unknown quantity.

GROSS: In other cities, when Kabila's troops have come in, Mobutu's troops have fled, so there really hasn't been that much of direct confrontation. And right now, Nelson Mandela is trying to broker an agreement between Kabila and Mobutu. What do you think the odds are that there's actually going to be fighting in Kinshasa?

FRENCH: That's the big unknown, and that's part of why everybody is on edge here, whether they're for Kabila, as most people seem to be, or for Mobutu. No one knows how the presidential guard here will react to the approach of the rebels.

The presidential guard was built up over years by Mobutu, drawn from his own ethnic group, the Inbandi (ph) tribe of the north, far north of Zaire, and a bunch of related groups. And they have been treated pretty well by Mobutu -- paid, unlike most soldiers, both regularly and with reasonable salaries.

And they are armed better than almost any other -- well, better than any other Zairian unit. And it's -- everyone wonders whether, when the rebels approach, these guys will mount a last stand of any kind or not. And if so, how violent it will be -- whether -- how much destruction the capital we'll see.

I think sort of associated with that is a fear of just generalized mayhem by soldiers, not just of the presidential guard, but soldiers of all kind, and there are thousands and thousands of them in this city who, in moments of great tension here, have shown a propensity for looting.

Both historically -- in the last 10 years the city's been sort of sacked by soldiers twice -- and during this war, every time the rebels get close, before the rebels even engage in combat, the soldiers who happen to be in a city loot it thoroughly before taking off.

So you have those two sorts of fears that hang over the city right now -- that Mobutu's presidential guard will mount a final stand that will see mortars and all sorts of other (Unintelligible) brought to bear on the city, and reaping widespread destruction. And the other one that they'll just be (unintelligible) and Kinshasa will be looted and perhaps burned.

GROSS: Who's in the rebel troops? I've read that most of Kabila's troops are teenage soldiers.

FRENCH: Indeed, that's true. Kabila has had recruitment rallies in cities that he's captured, starting with Goma in the far east.

But, you know, as he has spread across the country -- all the way across -- everywhere he -- every major city that he's captured, they have mounted recruitment drives and watching the film footage of the drives and of the parades that the newly-uniformed soldiers have engaged in, you -- one can't help but notice that Kabila's troops are by and large kids, say, between the age of 14 and 18, with most of them seeming to come from the younger part of that age range.

He hasn't really gotten very much heat for that, which is one of the unusual things about this war. I mean, there's been a lot of attention to treatment of refugees, which, indeed, deserves to be discussed. But the use of child soldiers, which was a prominent feature of the Liberian civil war over the last several years, has not gotten very much attention here in Zaire.

GROSS: Are these soldiers in their young teens disciplined?

FRENCH: That's another remarkable element to this war. Kabila's troops, by comparison with Mobutu's troops, are extraordinarily well-disciplined. There have been almost no reports of looting by Kabila's troops. There have been instances where isolated cases of theft have been immediately punished, and the stolen goods returned to the owners.

I remember when the city of Kisangani fell a few weeks back -- that's Zaire's third largest city in the north of the country. There was a Belgian, former colonial Belgian farmer who's been there forever and ever, who -- the rebels arrived at this house and asked him if they could use his car.

And he assumed that that was the last he would be seeing of his car, and gave them the keys, feeling that he had no choice. And two or three hours later, to his astonishment, the rebels drove back -- drove up to his house in his car, handed over the keys, and left.

So yes, there has been a remarkable amount of discipline on the part of the rebels, and that's one of the untold stories. How do you pull that off, with fresh recruits who are, moreover, tend to be quite young?

GROSS: In today's New York Times, you wrote a little bit about how Kabila practices this form of verbal intimidation before sending his troops into a city. What kinds of things does he say? What has he been saying lately?

FRENCH: Well, the typical tactic has been to announce several weeks, even, before his troops arrive at a given location that they're coming. And that sort of sets the temperature rising in whatever -- in that target city.

And after that initial announcement, there's a steady sort of drum-roll of warnings that, yes, we're coming -- we're coming after such and such a person; we'll be there on such and such a date. Our troops have advanced 50 miles. We're now at the outskirts of this or that town. Give us two more days. You better get out.

And that's exactly what's happening here with Kinshasa. Kabila told Mobutu yesterday during a press conference he gave in the southern city of Lubumbashi that he would give him two or three days to decide to surrender power.

If he decided to do so, Mobutu and, as Kabila put it, his biological family, would be spared. If not, his troops would be in the suburbs of Kinshasa within two or three days as of yesterday, and would begin to chase Mobutu out of power "in a humiliating fashion," he said.

That has been the talk of this city today. No one knows, in fact, exactly how long it's going to take Kabila to get here. There are those who believe that two or three days is realistic, and there are those who don't. But the fact is that the people who have reason to fear his arrival are very much on edge now.

And the ultimate result of that tactic has been that most of the targeted people end up fleeing before the deadline, so Kabila captures a city or takes a strategic prize with -- at minimal cost. There's no -- the enemy's gone by the time he gets there.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Howard French. He's in Kinshasa now, reporting on the civil war in Zaire for the New York Times.

How is news getting conveyed in Kinshasa now? I mean, obviously you're reporting on the news for the Times, but I doubt that most of the people in Kinshasa are reading the New York Times. Most of the phone lines aren't functioning. How are people finding out what's actually happening?

FRENCH: Here, as in everywhere in Africa, radio is the biggest source of news for people. And you drive through popular neighborhoods here, and your hear radio stations, both the Zairian stations and foreign stations. BBC broadcasts in French; Radio France; the Voice of America, as well as several Zairian stations.

You -- radios are on all the time, all over the place and everyone wants to know what the latest news is. So that is -- that's probably the main and most immediate source of news for Zairians.

The other thing that should be said, though, is that Zaire has a very vibrant written press. There are scores of newspapers here. One wonders how they manage to stay afloat, but there are many, many titles and Zairians have a rather unique way of reading them.

They -- the newspaper vendors set themselves up on street corners, and they pin up the day's front pages on a sort of bulletin board, or sometimes, in fact, just lie them out on the sidewalk. And this draws, on days where there's a lot of news, huge crowds.

People come and they read the titles and big debates ensue. In a very lively fashion, people comment the news as they're reading it and exchange views about the latest development.

And this phenomenon has taken on a rather colorful title here. The people who read the newspapers that way and typically don't buy them. They stand there and read them and exchange gossip and analysis -- those people are called "Le Parliamentere Debout (ph)" in French -- which means "the standing parliament."

GROSS: Hm. If you're just joining us, my guest is Howard French and he's in Kinshasa reporting on the civil war in Zaire for the New York Times.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Howard French of the New York Times. He's speaking to us by phone from Kinshasa where he's reporting on Zaire's civil war for the New York Times.

Kabila has been Mobutu's rival since the 1960s. Kabila is left over from the Marxist era. Aren't, like, Mobutu and Kabila kind of dinosaurs by now? I mean, aren't there any young, strong men around who can be vying with them for power?

FRENCH: The problem is that Mobutu has not allowed rivals to -- for most of his time in power -- has not allowed -- did not allow rivals to emerge. He would kill them off, force them into exile, or corrupt them. So that prevented the emergence, really, of a viable class of younger politicians who might have something better to offer to their country.

Kabila, unlike the other revolutionaries here in Zaire of his generation, was never bought off; was never really permanently exiled and obviously wasn't killed. He stayed in the bush in the far east of the country in a mountain range called the "Fizi Barraca" (ph) Mountains. And pretty much mined gold there; sold ivory, it is said, and kept a small band of rebels going throughout all of these years.

He is very much a figure from the early days of this country's independence from Belgium in 1960, but by virtue of his survival and by virtue of Mobutu's system, which prevented people here in the capital or elsewhere in the country from challenging the dictator's power, he is the only alternative out there for the moment.

GROSS: What is at stake for the rest of Africa and for the United States now in Zaire?

FRENCH: What's at stake for the rest of Africa is the stability of a huge part of the continent. If Zaire cannot be governed in a stable fashion, then that has tremendous consequences for a very large portion of this continent.

Zaire borders on nine other countries. Several of them are in great difficulty right now politically themselves. Trouble in Zaire will mean that it's that much more difficult for them to get their houses in order.

Economically speaking, the fact that you have this huge and very richly-endowed country of 45 million people sort of taken off of the world's economic circuit because of the mis -- the mis-government by Mobutu -- the collapse of the economy here; the failure of the leadership here to try to do anything serious in terms of getting the country back running in an honest and productive fashion.

It's very costly economically to the rest of the continent. Neighbor states could trade with a functioning Zaire in a very lucrative way. Now, they can't. All that exists is the black market and small, informal trade.

For the United States, those -- the reasons just mentioned are very important. There is also a sense, I think, that Zaire has had it's hand in a lot of conflicts throughout this continent for many years -- some of them at the United States' behest. Notably in Angola during the Cold War, Mobutu was helping the anti-communist UNITA rebel movement with massive CIA assistance.

Washington no longer wants to wage that battle and -- but Mobutu has continued to help UNITA to the detriment of a peace arrangement between the former rebels in Angola and the government. Zaire has had its hand in conflicts in Sudan, in Uganda, in Rwanda, in Burundi, and in Chad -- in addition to its hand in the conflict in Angola.

So, the idea is that if Zaire were given a stable, reasonably honest and ordinary government by African standards, then, for Washington, one of the interests is that a lot of trouble -- cutting from the northeast of Africa all the way to the southwest of Africa -- would begin to die down and you would have an end to humanitarian crises; you would have much calmer political situations in those countries; and eventually, potentially, Zaire would come to -- would become a big economic player that could interest, as it did a long time ago, major investment from the United States and elsewhere in the West.

GROSS: I think one of the paradoxes of Mobutu's rule is that he's kind of cloaked himself in the rhetoric of African nationalism and cultural identity. He called his political movement "Authenticity." And yet he has destroyed his own country. He's destroyed a large part of Africa. Can you talk a little bit about that contradiction during his reign?

FRENCH: The principal lesson to draw from that, I think, is that it's easier to defend a notion of nationalism with rhetoric than it is to build a viable country. Mobutu very effectively constructed a whole vision of or ideology of his country as a sort of porch light for the rest of Africa to follow, and was indeed followed for many years by a number of other African dictators.

"Authenticity" was for a time, and even continues to be for many Zairians, something that is seen as being positive -- that why should Zairians, in a blanket fashion, adopt Western names when Zairians from time immemorial have had their own names? Why should Zairians mimic western dress when, in fact, Africans have always had their own dress et cetera, et cetera?

Mobutu was very clever in identifying ideas like that would appeal to the pride of Africans in themselves, and it both reinforced his rule to do so and it, by doing so, he managed and he hasn't gotten perhaps enough credit for this, to forge an identity of -- for his people of all belonging to one nation which, he decided, as I said, to call Zaire.

So yes, Mobutu has destroyed his economy, but the paradox is, as you said a moment ago, he has managed at the same time to forge a sense of a nation, that even as his rule goes down the drain, remains viable.

GROSS: I guess in some ways that was a difficult thing to do, 'cause there's, what, about 200 or 250 different ethnic groups in Zaire, so I imagine holding them together in nationhood is not that easy.

FRENCH: There's so many ethnic groups here that I don't think anybody really has a good number for them, but 250 is one of the numbers one sees often. To give you an idea of what Mobutu did, Zaire today is a country in which people speak -- educated people, and people for the most part, in fact, speak French.

But they also have two main lingua franca in the country. In the western half of the country, almost everyone speaks a language called Lingala (ph). In the eastern half of the country, almost everyone speaks Swahili, regardless of what their tribal language is -- the language of their mother tongue; the language they speak at home.

Nearly everyone speaks one of those two languages. African countries that don't have common languages tend often to be countries where tribalism is particularly troublesome. And Mobutu had the foresight to figure out that an important element of sort of welding people together was encouraging the emergence of a couple of languages that virtually everyone could speak. And Zaire was not big -- was too big for him to choose one, and so he promoted these two languages.

GROSS: Howard French is in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, covering the country for the New York Times. Our interview was recorded earlier today. We'll hear more of it in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Howard French who is in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, covering the civil war for the New York Times.

We phoned him in Kinshasa earlier today to talk about the war and his experiences covering it. The long-time dictator of the country, Mobutu Sese Seko is under pressure from the international community to give up power, and he's also facing rebel troops led by his long-time rival Laurent Kabila, which were approaching the capital. Mobutu is credited with leading his country into economic ruin.

Zaire has become a very poor country. Mobutu, I think, has something like $6 billion and his palace has been called Versailles in the Jungle. Where did he get his money from?

FRENCH: Mobutu got his money from all ways -- you know, virtually every way one could make money in Zaire, from taking a cut on every sizable government contract or deal that was made during his rule. In the 1970s, when there were big expropriations of foreign-owned property here, under a program that followed Authenticity that was called "Africanization" or "Zairianization."

Mobutu distributed properties: plantations, factories, businesses to his cronies, but took many of the biggest ones for himself. There was a plantation called the "Celza" (ph) plantation. That was an agricultural and livestock company that had huge landholdings. And Mobutu, overnight, through this Zairianization, inherited more land than the size of the country of Rwanda. He inherited 25,000 employees overnight from just this one nationalization.

Today, well not today because the rebels have taken this over, but until very recently, Mobutu had a hand in every diamond deal done in Zaire. There's a large diamond company, state-owned company called "Biba" in the central city of Embugiamae (ph) that was selling, oh, maybe $20 million of diamonds every month, being exported straight to Antwerp. Well, Mobutu, it is thought, had a cut of, say, between 15 and 20 percent of that every month, year after year after year.

The same was true for copper and cobalt in the country's south. The same is true for import licenses. Mobutu has had a hand in everything here that's been worth having a hand in, business-wise. And the people raise questions about whether he really does still have $5 or $6 billion or whether, indeed, he ever had that much, but it is beyond question that the man has had huge amounts of income for a very long time.

GROSS: You know, another obvious paradox about Mobutu's rule is that although he's used the language of African nationalism and has done some genuinely, you know, African nationalistic things during his regime, he's really been supported by the West. I mean, he -- I think, would have never maintained power early on if it wasn't for the CIA propping him up.

FRENCH: That's certainly true. Mobutu was pushed, sort of, to the front of the stage by the CIA, which encouraged him to knock off the first prime minister of the country, Lumumba, and to seize power temporarily in 1961. And in 1965, the CIA again encouraged him to take power and he did so in a permanent fashion.

Mobutu's nationalism has been a direct domestic nationalism in terms of appealing to African pride and the idea of Zaire as a huge and strong -- or would be strong nation that would have the sort of -- an image abroad corresponding to its gigantic size.

Mobutu has always been reviled in so-called progressive circles in Africa, in countries like Tanzania and Zimbabwe, and Nkrumah's Ghana earlier on, because, in fact, he was seen as the lackey of the West.

And in terms of foreign policy, the only way he's ever tried to undo that image is by maintaining ties with the Chinese which he has done for quite some time; with Libya, he entertained quite close ties for a while; with North Korea.

These were sort of meant to confuse the picture of him as being the sort of handmaiden of the West, but in fact, within African circles, Mobutu has always been seen as the creation of Washington and a man kept in power by Western intervention.

GROSS: Listen, forgive me if this sounds culturally insensitive, but every time I see a picture of Mobutu, I hear Bob Dylan's recording of "Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat." Is the leopard-skin hat that he wears meant to be a sign of his Africanism?

FRENCH: It's probably more a sign of his ego than Africanism. I mean, leopard-skin hats are not something that one sees Africans wearing generally. They were sort of in fashion when Mobutu first began wearing them. Other Zairians began wearing them. But there's nothing particularly African about wearing a leopard-skin cap.

The story -- the whole -- that goes back to Mobutu's personal mythology -- that he told a story early on about how he was once fearful as a boy in the northern countryside where he grew up, and his father or uncle took him out to hunt as a way to conquer his fear, and made him kill a leopard.

And Mobutu, indeed, lived up to the task and thrust his spear into the leopard and the leopard died and Mobutu, then, therefore appropriated the symbol of the leopard and, as the story goes, has never been afraid again.

The other story that is part of his myth that goes to sort of animal symbolism is the eagle. Mobutu carries a massive wooden-carved cane that has a handsome eagle at its crest or at the handle of the cane, and Mobutu is said to identify with the eagle because he soars above the scene, unlike ordinary mortals, and has extraordinary eyesight and can see things coming, and is always above the fray.

So, those were the two images of himself that he sought to promote. They really have to do more with the outsized ego of this man than with any real notion of authentic Africanness.

GROSS: Joining us on the phone from Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, is Howard French of the New York Times. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Back with Howard French, who's covering the war in Zaire for the New York Times.

Do Kabila's troops or Mobutu's troops respect the press? Or do you feel like you're endangered when you run into troops?

FRENCH: Kabila's troops are still an open question. I think that they are fairly disciplined, so that I don't recall any stories of reporters having been actually assaulted by them.

But there -- seems there's a growing question of tolerance of the press in Kabila's areas, and freedom of the press, and whether or not Zairian and foreign journalists will be allowed to move about freely and to cover things as they see fit and to question the behavior of Kabila's movement and what one expects will soon be Kabila's government.

In Mobutu's part of the country, the government really -- it tolerates the press in an official sense, but then goes out of its way to harass them. I've been arrested several times here in Zaire, even though my papers are all in order.

There seems -- there's almost a sort of hunt for foreign journalists by the secret police here who believe that we are sort of cash cows that if they pick up on the street, they can milk for, oh, $50 or $100. And a lot of us have been picked up like that.

The soldiers -- there was an opposition march against the government here a few weeks ago, and the soldiers who were trying to prevent the march really let loose against the journalists here. My photographer was knocked to the ground by a truck -- army truck door opening on him deliberately, and then a soldier ripped one of his cameras away from him.

A number of TV crews and other photographers and even reporters had gear stolen from them, and we were all heavily tear-gassed when the demonstration reached the prime minister's office here, which was the final gathering point.

There's no -- you know, there's nothing sacred about being a foreign correspondent here. They don't -- they make no bones about stealing your stuff or, indeed, attacking you.

GROSS: When you've been arrested, have you delivered with money to the people who are obviously looking for money?

FRENCH: I believe very strongly in not bribing people, and I have a long experience in -- out -- being more patient than my arresters. Sometimes, you can't afford -- I mean, sometimes the circumstances are such that you sort of have to give in, but I have been pretty successful not surrendering money.

I've heard horrible tales of colleagues of mine, you know, being held up for as much as $500 or more, even at the airport, before they've gotten into town here. And I'm happy to say that I've never given in like that.

I have more -- what's worse to me, though, is that I was in, for example, Lubumbashi, which is the southern copper mining capital, a couple of months ago, before the city fell to the rebels. And, I was making my rounds. I'd gone to the university to talk to students, and, you know, was touring a mining neighborhood near a copper smelter.

And the secret police arrested us -- myself and my photographer -- and they hauled us in; kept us for most of the night in their headquarters. And the end result: we didn't have to give up any money, but the end result was that all of my notebooks from that trip were seized, as was my photographer's film.

And that is even more painful than having to surrender money, and there was nothing I could do about it, so it was, in a personal sense, in a professional sense, a pretty big loss.

GROSS: How good is your memory to reconstitute the notes?

FRENCH: Well, I was disappointed because of -- in -- just beyond the blow of having things stolen from me. I mean, it was my first trip to Lubumbashi. I had gone there with great, sort of, anticipation. It's a great city. It's a totally different place from Kinshasa. The climate's different. The look is different -- architecture, the people. You know, it's just a whole different feel.

And the arrest came the night before I was supposed to leave, and I had just finished telling my photographer, whose name I should mention, Robert Grossman (ph), what a great visit this had been and how excited I was about writing the story. And then, you know, within an hour, we were hauled in and my -- our stuff was taken from us.

I wrote a story. It was a very disappointing experience, because even if you can repeat, sort of, you can recapture seeing things like that, you can never recapture -- you know, I do dozens of interviews in a day and you just can't recapture that. I can't quote people just from memory the next day after having interviewed so many people.

And the other things was I felt that I might have jeopardized safety of some of the people who talked to me, because their names and quotes were in my notebooks and the secret police seized this stuff and who knows what was going to become of those people afterward.

GROSS: Do you know if anything happened to them as a result of the notes?

FRENCH: I don't know. I've not been able to find out. You know, it's one of these things that's just a terrible thing. You know, I can't know. I probably will never know. I've been back to Lubumbashi.

I was there last week. But I was there just overnight in this diplomatic delegation, and I was sort of chained to their agenda and had no way of breaking away and trying to find out anything else, including what happened to the people that I interviewed.

The good thing is, I was told by -- I ran into the driver I used in Lubumbashi, and he was all right. And he told me that generally people were very happy in that city -- that the secret police had all fled; that all of the soldiers that used to harass people had disappeared; and that there was a sense that people could breathe and talk and enjoy some sense of liberty again.

So hopefully, the people who confided in me in those interviews are enjoying that themselves now.

GROSS: You sound pretty calm and focused, but you're waiting for rebel troops to move in to Kinshasa, and you don't know what's going to happen next; you don't know how you're going to cover what happens next; you don't know if mayhem's going to take over the city or what.

Do you really feel calm and focused? Or are you a little edgy right now?

FRENCH: I have something of -- a certain sense of -- I don't want to -- fatalism is probably not the best word for it, but you have to, I think, in this job, not -- I mean, you just can't afford to get rattled by things, especially things that you don't know or, you know, can't anticipate. You try to be as smart as you can. You try not to take imprudent risks, and then you get on with your work.

There's no way to know, as you said, what's going to happen here, but my job is to write about it, so I sort of have to be here when whatever happens happens. And that -- I made the adjustment to that sort of thing a long time ago.

You know, when bullets start flying, if they do, or the city's on fire and there's mayhem here -- it's frightening and people in my job, like ordinary Zairians, will be frightened.

But there's no sense in getting panicked about it right now. You just have to sort of carry on doing what you're doing and stay focused. I mean, there's really no alternative. It's sort of like air travel in Africa.

I get on airplanes all the time, and I don't think about it because I have to get on airplanes, and that's the only way to get around. But African air travel is, by the standards of the United States or of the West generally, is horribly dangerous.

You know, you just have to -- I mean, there's some things you just have to do and you have to accept that that's part of what your life is made of. So, you know, hope for the best and get on with it.

GROSS: What's the worst situation you've been caught in so far in Zaire?

FRENCH: In Zaire, the worst thing I've been caught in -- I mean, there's a few ways of answering that. I mean, probably the most traumatic thing that I've done in Zaire has not had anything to do with any danger or risk to myself. I was in the city of Ubundu, which is near Kisangani in the north, northeast a few weeks ago covering the Hutu refugees there.

And I came away really shaken by what I saw. I mean, these people who have been tracked clear across Zaire, hundreds of miles, wherever they gather, as soon as the international community begins to sort of bring relief to them, they are set upon again by the rebels and by local villagers sometimes.

And it was just -- it was a traumatic experience to see this. I mean, having little kids -- I had seen this same population in a few places and sort of followed their progression westward, trying to stay ahead of the rebels and stay out of, well, to avoid being hunted down by the rebels.

And just going to this very desperate place where they had reached the banks of the Zaire River, and there was no way for them to get -- no easy way for them to get across, and the fear that the rebels were just a few steps behind them and would be attacking at any minute and -- or any day, and no relief in sight.

And the people were just extraordinarily dispirited, and very weak. And, you know, lots of children who hadn't seen their parents for weeks. Presumably their parents were dead.

And having kids sort of cling to you and, you know, that couldn't even speak the language that I can speak, but it was disturbing to be powerless to help people. Even though, as the story has it, and a lot of these people were associated with the violence in Rwanda a couple of years ago, that led to the killing of a lot of Tutsis.

I mean, when you see women and children, for the most part, and that's what the bulk of this population was, subjected to that sort of horrifying experience, it just -- you know, it's worse than anything that I've had to experience myself and I don't -- you know, it's not even appropriate to think about what little risk or trauma that's been directed at me. I mean, it really just -- it was sickening, really, to watch it.

GROSS: Howard French, what story are you working on right now for the New York Times?

FRENCH: The word today here in Kinshasa is that Mobutu is sort of trying to engineer an exit from the country that would allow him to avoid handing over directly to Kabila and avoid resigning -- leaving with -- pretending still to be president.

And what people are saying and, indeed, there's confirmation from some of the president's assistants, is that tomorrow, Mobutu will be leaving Zaire for a meeting to be held in the central African country of Gabon, which is not too far from here, for a meeting with a bunch of other French-speaking African leaders on the Great Lakes crisis -- the crisis affecting his country and Rwanda and Burundi.

It's pretty generally believed here that if, in fact, he leaves the country tomorrow, there's not much chance that he'll come back. Kabila's people have said that they'll be here within two or three days. They said that yesterday. And I sort of expect that if Mobutu leaves, then pretty shortly afterwards, the rebels will be here. They'll seize the airport and the question of Mobutu -- the Mobutu era will be over.

GROSS: Well Howard French, I want to thank you so much for taking some time out of a very busy day for you in Kinshasa to talk with us, and I wish you good luck over the next few days.

FRENCH: Thank you, Terry. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Howard French is in Kinshasa covering the war in Zaire for the New York Times. Our interview was recorded earlier today.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Howard French
High: The New York Times' Howard French on events in Zaire. Over the weekend talks began between Zaire's president Mobutu Sese Seko and the rebel leader trying to overthrow him, Laurent Kabila. Talks have halted over a disagreement between the two: Mobutu agreed to relinquish power but only to a transitional authority that would organize national elections. But Kabila wants power handed over to him. Meanwhile rebel forces are closing in on Kinshasa. Talks will resume in six to eight days.
Spec: Africa; Zaire; Rebels; Military; Politics; Government; World Affairs; South Africa

Please note, this is not the final feed of record.

Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Zaire Update
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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