The invalids line their wheelchairs along the edge of the pier, high above the Congo River's swirling, deadly currents, as if about to plunge in.
But they are not suicidal. They are in a race. And they must solve an important puzzle: How can they board the approaching ferry without being kicked or beaten? What is the best way to avoid the bullying laborers who soon will drop crushing, 120-pound sacks of rice onto the pier? When, and for how long, should they pause to dodge the barrels of solvent that will come rolling down the loading ramp? And can they really move fast enough to squeeze past that Mercedes where a rich man sits with his windows rolled up, honking impatiently to drive onto the boat?When the ferry from Brazzaville drops its plank, the matter is resolved within minutes. Hundreds of people stampede off its deck, elbowing hundreds more who shove to get on. In between, the men in wheelchairs swivel and probe, rolling this way, nudging that way, seeking openings. Policemen in khaki swing at the passengers with webbed belts, bits of garden hose, rubber fan belts, knotted ropes and wires. A stevedore slips and spills a bale of peanuts. Short, sharp pushing matches break out.
But slowly, tenaciously, with small compromises, the handicappes of Kinshasa advance steadily up the ramp.
"It helps to be like us," says Gode Mowangi, one of hundreds of polio-stricken traders who eke out their living transporting goods across the Congo River on their wheelchairs. "You are invisible. People let you alone."
Many of Kinshasa's 5 million citizens must feel something like Mowangi these days--ignored by the world, swept up in a gigantic brawl that is being fought largely over their heads, and scrambling to survive, to avoid being trampled to death.
The brawl in this case involves a sprawling, regional war of unprecedented scale in Africa. Deep in the continent's belly, a rabble of Congolese militias and seven different armies are fighting over whether President Laurent Kabila should remain in power. The conflict has ripped Congo in half.
Congo's war is to some extent a river war; the Congo River's 7,000 miles of navigable tributaries often define the route of an army's advance. To follow its bent course, then, is to follow the flow of the conflict itself--from the mineral-rich headwaters in Katanga, to the steamy jungles controlled by rebels, to the mighty waterway's final dash for the sea near Congo's forsaken river capital, Kinshasa.
But if the Congo River today tells the story of a rich, vital nation imploding into chaos, then it tells a bigger story too. Far beyond the Congo's million-square-mile watershed, politicians and diplomats are whispering that the Congo war could drag Africa into unprecedented crisis.
Some fear Kabila will fight to keep power at any cost, including even the fracturing of Africa's third-largest nation.
Should this happen, analysts say, the murky struggle in Congo will become the defining African war of the new century. And the resulting upheaval will be unlike any since colonial times.
"If you end up with a de facto partition of Congo, you set an explosive precedent," said a Western diplomat in Kinshasa. "You basically raise the specter of the breakup of the weaker nation-states in Africa. It's the continent's biggest taboo."
Since the early 1960s, when colonialism began to crumble, there has been one cardinal understanding among most African statesmen: Tinkering with colonial borders, however nonsensical they might be, invites the dual disasters of border wars and tribal secessions.
Even hard-core pan-Africanists like Tanzania's Julius Nyerere declared that such a course would "lead us to the tragic absurdity of spending money on armaments while our people die for want of medical attention."
Corrupt governments and the Cold War have confirmed Nyerere's fears anyway. But it is worth noting that in more than 70 coups in Africa since 1963, none has resulted in the forming of new nations. Eritrea, which became independent in 1993, was a colonial creation.
"The real danger of Congo today is that we are in hangover from the Cold War," says Johannes Dawit, the speaker of Ethiopia's parliament. "Old East-West alignments have collapsed and things are still very unpredictable, in flux. I would expect Africa to be in turmoil for the next 10 years. Sudan could break into three pieces--south, west and north. And Congo could be a detonator."
Dawit explains that Ethiopia's solution to Africa's lingering instability is ethnic federalism: Major tribal groups have their own schools, television stations and taxes.
But the real tragedy of Congo, with its 250 ethnic groups, is that the problem is reversed.
Just as the Congo River's branching tributaries web the country together with a maze of tropical streams, virtually all Congolese, from a jungle fisherwoman to a European-bred rebel leader, want to preserve their union.
"This was the only good thing [former dictator] Mobutu left us after decades of thievery--we all still call ourselves Congolese," says Jean Mpasi-Mazeba, a sad-faced accountant with the government's paralyzed shipping agency.
Mpasi-Mazeba works in a cavernous building smelling of mildew and clogged plumbing that overlooks one of Kinshasa's many idled shipyards. Rusting ferryboats line the city's industrial riverside like beached whale carcasses. All the boats are bloquee-- "blocked" by the war. Mpasi-Mazeba uses the same term to describe his own family; like millions of other Kinshasans, he hasn't seen his upstream relatives for more than two years. They are cut off behind rebel lines.
This is how the war grinds on, quietly eroding Congo's 40 brief years of national unity. Already, experts worry that Kabila, if hard pressed by the rebels, will set up a new nation in Katanga, his mineral-rich home province at the river's headwaters. Others foresee United Nations peacekeepers enforcing a de facto partition of Congo along cease-fire lines.
"Every Congolese is against the war," says Mowangi, the handicappe trader. "Even a disgraced man like me."
A man with a brilliant smile, Mowangi grudgingly admits that war has bolstered his worth as a citizen.
His family abandoned him as a child because of his arms and legs--three of four limbs are like broomsticks, shriveled by polio. No woman will marry him. No restaurant will serve him. But an uncle in the sprawling slums of Kinshasa has taken him in. It is the hard times. The uncle extracts a share of Mowangi's lean trading profits.
The river that swallows all rivers
One of the tallest skyscrapers in Kinshasa is the Ministry of Information. Dominique Sakombi Inongo, the minister, sits in an office on the top floor, and to reach him you must pound with a large stone on the elevator door in the lobby. Sometimes the elevator operator hears. Sometimes he doesn't. If he does, and picks you up, the doors will open on many floors that are completely black, dark as caverns. Sakombi's is not one of them.
"The Congo River," says Sakombi, "is the spinal column of our country. It is a wonderful road. It connects urban to rural. It mixes our cultures and philosophies. It is the basis of our history, and our future."
Sitting in an office decorated with faux Louis XIV furniture, he tells how the Congo River can meet the hydropower needs of Africa. He explains how the Congo's electricity-generating capacity exceeds all of the rivers and lakes in the continental United States combined. He describes how its original Kikongo name, nzere--"the river that swallows all rivers"--inspired the previous name of the country, Zaire. What he doesn't say is how the stream now also connects the Congolese through widespread misery and death.
According to the United Nations, hundreds of thousands of people have died of war-related violence, disease and hunger in Congo since the fighting erupted in August 1998. Upstream, some 200,000 people are thought to be surviving off wild berries in the jungles of rebel-held eastern Congo alone. In Kinshasa, which is firmly under government control, the toll is more subtle.
With wartime inflation running at more than 500 percent and few civil servants getting paid, Congo's huge capital has become a city of frenetic peddlers. Sweating young men carry trays on their heads piled with sundries, condoms and aspirin, rosaries and razor blades. Two hundred people may stampede toward a passing microbus taxi, because gasoline shortages have paralyzed public transportation.
And on the Congo River, there is only one good business left: smuggling desperate Congolese out to Brazzaville, capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo. The most recent celebrity among these emigrants was Francoise Lumumba, the son of Congo's martyred liberation leader.
Still, Sakombi does not look like the representative of a regime that might spark a terrible new wave of war across Africa. He is an amiable bureaucrat clad in a purple boubous, a traditional robe. If he is preachy, it is because he is famous for two things: He claims to conduct direct conversations with God every day; and he asserts that President Kabila is ruling Congo with divine guidance.
In his previous incarnation as a frontman for former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Sakombi once produced a television commercial that showed the U.S.-backed strongman descending godlike from the clouds.
"What the world calls a rebellion we call an aggression," Sakombi says, castigating the United States for not reining in its African allies Rwanda and Uganda, who ignited the war in central Africa.
His billboards, "Fight for the Reconquest of Congo," hector Kinshasans from hundreds of street corners.
But they fool no one.
"There's no military solution to this standoff," sighs a senior United Nations official involved in trying to bring peace to Congo. "The country's just too immense for a clean military victory to ever happen. Except for Rwanda and Angola, who are worried about guerrillas, there's also no legitimate security reason for people to be meddling here. People are just milking the place for diamonds."
Another UN source who deals frequently with Kabila says: "He is not really a bad man. He is a revolutionary still trapped in the 1960s who feels he has been chosen by history. He is delusional, intensely paranoid, and the chasm of isolation between he and the people is growing."
Nobody knows exactly where Kabila, a former guerrilla, sleeps in Kinshasa. He sends decoy motorcades out whenever he travels. Convinced the United Nations wants to assassinate him, he avoids driving past the organization's compound, even though it once lay on the most direct route to the airport.
The lesson of airplanes
An expatriate living in Congo wants to point out the lunacy of post-Cold War conflict in Africa.
"Go to the airport and look at the tails of the airplanes," he says.
Miles outside the city, over roads filled with deep pools of fetid rainwater, Ndjili International Airport often looks abandoned except for a motley gaggle of cargo planes parked on a distant tarmac.
Most are Soviet-made Antonovs, the surplus of the Cold War. Many have "UN" stenciled on their tails; these are planes chartered by the United Nations to fly high-protein porridge to refugees, or UN peace observers to forward positions as mandated by the Security Council.
A few planes have the faint outlines of "UN" on their tails where the international organization's logo has been stripped off; these are former mercy planes now contracted to fly arms and ammunition to Kabila's troops.
Ukrainian pilots fly both types of planes. Identical planes also are flown by Ukrainian mercenaries on the rebel side.
"The Ukrainians have privatized the war," the expatriate says, laughing. "And best of all, they also sit on the Security Council at the UN!"
Who will save Congo?
One day, a Kinshasa newspaper carries a letter from a reader titled, "More Than 500 Barriers Erected to Hold the Ship Owners at Ransom."
The letter says: "So what is happening on the Congo River? Impossible to go one step forward without encountering the Security Forces. They search everything. The aim of the search is only to be able to steal as much as possible. For each step forward there is a tax or a fine. This does not go to the State but to the pockets of the strongest ones."
The letter goes on describe how ship captains are robbed of cassava roots, fish and other food at 500 separate checkpoints between Kinshasa and Mbandaka, a front-line town some 350 miles upstream.
In fact, traffic on the Congo River has been all but paralyzed by the war. The mad gantlets run by Mowangi, the invalid trader--15-minute journeys across the stream to neighboring Brazzaville--are the only regular passenger routes still active on one of the world's most magnificent waterways. No other river in the world is as constant as the Congo; it crosses the equator not once, but twice, and its currents absorb runoff from two alternating wet seasons, two hemispheres.
The letter writer concludes with Congolese hyperbole: "To say the least the [Democratic Republic of Congo] is a country where great ideas are born but not enjoyed by anyone ... Imagination prevails over reality. Reason is offending to governments. Who will save Congo?"
In the exclusive, hilly neighborhoods of Kinshasa where the technocrats of Kabila have replaced those of Mobutu, and from where the Congo River seems like a distant blade of sky, Christophe Gbenye says he has the answer to that question: Who will save Congo?
"My party," says Gbenye, the general secretary of the Congolese National Movement-Lumumbist, the direct descendant of the party founded by Congo's liberation leader Lumumba. "Kabila has no vision whatsoever. He was a professional rebel, living in Tanzanian hotels. He does not know how to run a country or a war."
Gbenye, sitting under a thatched gazebo equipped with a bar and an espresso machine, repeats what everyone in Kinshasa says: Kabila is prolonging the war because he will not survive a free election in a peaceful Congo. Kabila has squandered his goodwill since installing himself as president in 1997. He has suppressed the press and banned all political parties. He has postponed elections indefinitely. He has set up a sham parliament with hand-picked deputies.
Gbenye compares the biggest war in Africa to a crystal--a perfect latticework of interlocking interests that make the violence and chaos unscratchable, like a diamond.
Angola wants its borders secure from guerrillas, so it supports Kabila in exchange for allowing Angolan troops in Congo. Zimbabwe and Namibia are reported to be tapping diamond mines in exchange for their help. Rwanda and its ally Uganda will never pull out of the rebel-held east until the Hutu militias that committed the 1994 Rwandan genocide are neutralized there.
"To get all these foreigners out, to solve this puzzle, to keep this disease from spreading to the rest of Africa, it will take a new generation of Congolese leaders," says Gbenye. But he is not one of them.
His party, inactive now like all the opposition in Congo, is widely regarded as having been co-opted by Kabila. And then there is his past. Gbenye led the Simba rebel movement in the 1960s, an army whose fighters dressed in monkey skins and cannibalized their opponents. In the eastern city of Kisangani, he once took 800 white hostages and threatened to burn them alive.
Gbenye, a courtly man in a blue flowered shirt, says that today he is a vegetarian and a devout Catholic.
A gift for the dead
Mowangi, the river trader, doesn't know much about politics. None of the people crowded into his uncle's compound in the slums of Kinshasa can afford a newspaper. For them, the war is this: Of 35 people packed into the dusty clutch of huts and houses, only two have jobs. And everything costs money these days in Kinshasa.
School students must pay their teachers to have each of their tests graded. A woman giving birth is held as collateral in Kinshasa's dilapidated hospital until her family ponies up a set of chairs, or perhaps the family television set.
Mowangi is one of the two lucky people among his relatives who enjoys steady work. Usually, a cousin pushes him and his wheelchair the 6 miles to the waterfront. He carries a few boxes of soap over the Congo River, or some biscuits perhaps, for a weekly income of about $15.
Mowangi does not like the Congo River. He once saw a handicappe fall into the stream. The man and his wheelchair sank immediately. In compensation, the ferryboat captain paid a small cadeau, or gift, to the handicappe traders union.
A message to the world
While peacemakers from the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity circle Congo warily, smelling a quagmire bigger than the size of many subcontinents, 50 million Congolese wait. They grow gaunt. They die. Many leave; the most popular television show in Kinshasa is a music program featuring Congolese emigrants partying in Belgian clubs.
But some of Congo's people, thrust unwillingly into a volcanic war rumbling in Africa's center, have refused to fade away. They do not want to become invisible, like the handicappes.
In August, 44 followers of Bernard Mizele Nsima, a wizened old preacher who calls himself the King of Kongo, walked into government offices in Kinshasa and delivered 44 identical letters addressed to Kabila. The president, the letters intoned, was to resign immediately and pass power to Mizele, a divine king.
The royal subjects of the so-called Kingdom of Kongo were hauled off to jail. Mizele was arrested at 3 a.m. the next day, in a police raid on his house.
"The police asked him to give up his demands," says Basakinina Mbelolo, an unemployed engineer who is a minister in Mizele's fantasy kingdom. "He said he couldn't; he had his vision from God."
Today the self-anointed king sits in prison, apparently waiting for another chance to grasp his destiny.
The old man's followers had staged a similar phantom coup once before. During their 1998 trial on charges of subversion--a showcase for the hairline cracks appearing in the surface of Congo's battered nationhood--King Mizele laid out his plans to carve a secessionist empire from Congo that included Kinshasa and two western provinces. He already had appointed family members to imaginary government posts. Today, thousands of his followers still carry his kingdom's identity cards.
"We want you to deliver a message to the world about these matters," says Mbelolo, the king's spokesman. "There are great injustices here."
Mbelolo, a dapper man, borrows money to photocopy his kingdom's manifesto to the world. But after disappearing into the clogged, dusty, sweltering streets of Kinshasa, he never returns.
It is perhaps just as well.
The original Kingdom of Kongo, an empire with a complex system of taxes and fiefs that flourished on the lower reaches of the Congo River in the 15th Century, had no luck eliciting either attention or pity from of the world beyond Africa.
"My Lord, a monstrous greed pushes our subjects, even Christians, to seize members of their own families, and of ours, to do business by selling them as captives," King Nzinga Mbemna Affonso, the kingdom's first missionized monarch, wrote his counterpart in Portugal.
King Affonso, the first African leader to enter into correspondence with civilizations beyond the continent, was watching his lands being plundered by Portuguese slavers. He wrote beautiful letters requesting the intercession of several European courts. No answers ever came. Instead his pleas spilled, as the Congo River still does, into a vast ocean of silence.
The Congo is a strong if pitiless stream. Today, cargo ship captains report that the red silts of Africa's heart can be seen some 30 miles out into the Atlantic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times