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Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave
Kinshasa, 17 May 1997
Due to the events that have occurred last night, most of our employees have been unable to reach the hotel. Therefore, we are sorry to inform you that we will provide you only with a minimum service of room cleaning and that the laundry is only available for cleaning of your personal belongings. In advance, we thank you for your understanding and we hope that we will be able soon to assure our usual service quality.
At 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, a group of guests who had just staggered back to their rooms after a heavy drinking session in L'Atmosphère, the nightclub hidden in the bowels of Kinshasa's best hotel, heard something of a fracas taking place outside. Peering from their balconies near the top of the Tower, the modern part of the hotel where management liked to put guests paying full whack, they witnessed a scene calculated to sober them up.
Drawing up outside the Hotel Intercontinental, effectively barring all exits, were several military armoured cars, crammed with members of the Special Presidential Division (DSP), the dreaded elite unit dedicated to President Mobutu's personal protection and held responsible for the infamous Lubumbashi massacre. A black jeep with tinted windows had careered up to the side entrance and its owner -- Mobutu's own son Kongulu, a DSP captain -- was now levelling his sub-machine gun at the night receptionist.
Kongulu, who was later to die of AIDS, was a stocky, bearded man with a taste for fast cars, gambling and women. He left unpaid bills wherever he went with creditors too frightened to demand payment of the man who had been nicknamed 'Saddam Hussein' by Kinshasa's inhabitants. Now he was in full combat gear, bristling with grenades, two gleaming cartridge belts criss-crossed Rambo-style across his chest. And he was very, very angry.
Screaming at the receptionist, he demanded the room numbers of an army captain and another high-ranking official staying at the Intercontinental, men he accused of betraying his father, who had fled with his family hours before rather than face humiliation at the hands of the rebel forces advancing on the capital.
Up in Camp Tsha Tshi, the barracks on the hill which housed Mobutu's deserted villa, Kongulu's fellow soldiers had already killed the only man diplomats believed was capable of negotiating a peaceful handover. With the rebels believed to be only a couple of hours' march away, Kongulu and his men were driving from one suspected hideout to another in a mood of grim fury, searching for traitors. Their days in the sun were over, they knew, but they would not go quietly. They could feel the power slipping through their fingers, but there was still time, in the moments before Mobutu's aura of invincibility finally evaporated in the warm river air, for some score-settling.
The hotel incident swiftly descended into farce, as things had a tendency to do in Zaire.
'Block the lifts,' ordered the hotel's suave Jordanian manager, determined, with a level of bravery verging on the foolhardy, to protect his guests. The night staff obediently flipped the power switch. But by the time the manager's order had got through, Kongulu and two burly soldiers were already on the sixteenth floor.
Storming from one identical door to another, unable to locate their intended victims -- long since fled -- and unable to descend, the death squad was reaching near-hysteria. 'Unblock the lifts, let them out, let them out,' ordered the manager, beginning to feel rattled. Incandescent with fury, the trio spilled out into the lobby. Cursing and spitting, they mustered their forces, revved their vehicles and roared off into the night, determined to slake their blood lust before dawn.
The waiting was at an end. May 17, 1997 was destined to be showdown time for Zaire. And it looked uncomfortably clear that the months of diplomatic attempts to negotiate a deal that would ease Mobutu out and rebel leader Laurent Kabila in, preventing Kinshasa from descending into a frenzy of destruction behind the departing president, had come to precisely nothing.
The fact that so many of the key episodes in what was to be Zaire's great unravelling took place in the Hotel Intercontinental was not coincidental. Africa is a continent that seems to specialise in symbolic hotels which, for months or years, are microcosms of their countries' tumultuous histories. They are buildings where atrocities are committed, coups d'état consecrated, embryonic rebel governments lodged, peace deals signed, and when the troubled days are over, they still miraculously come up with almond croissants, fresh coffee and CNN in most rooms.
In Rwanda, that role is fulfilled by the Mille Collines hotel, where the management stared down the Hutu militiamen bent on slaughtering terrified Tutsi guests during the 1994 genocide. In Zimbabwe, it used to be the Meikles, where armed white farmers rubbed soldiers with sanction-busters during the Smith regime. In Ethiopia it is the Hilton, where during the Mengistu years some staff doubled as government informers; in Uganda, the Nile, whose rooms once rang with the screams of suspects being tortured by Idi Amin's police.
In Congo the honour most definitely goes to the Hotel Intercontinental. I know, because I once lived there. With one room as my living quarters, another as dilapidated office and a roof-top beer crate as the perch for a satellite telex -- my link with the outside world -- I soon realised that the hotel, as emblematic of the regime as Mobutu's leopardskin hat, offered the perfect vantage point from which to observe the dying days of the dinosaur.
The hotel was built on a whim. On a visit to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, President Mobutu saw the Hotel Ivoire, and decided he wanted one too. For once, his impulses were based on...In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz
Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo. Copyright © by Michela Wrong. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo by Michela Wrong
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