Few mourn for Mobutu The longtime dictator of former Zaire showed that he cared little for press freedom

September 14, 1997|By Timothy M. Phelps

Unlike the passing of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, that of Mobutu Sese Seko, late of Zaire, will not be mourned around the world. Especially not by me. I spent 10 terrifying days in 1983 detained by the Zairian secret police at the orders of "the guide," as Mobutu called himself.

It was a trifle compared to what happened to the average political prisoner there. But the ordeal taught me an appreciation for the U.S. Bill of Rights and skepticism of U.S. foreign policy, which was to support Mobutu until nearly the end.

I had just completed an arduous six-week journey up the Congo River and across Zaire, now renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. Helen Winternitz and I were working on a series for The Sun about the corruption and resulting wretched conditions in the U.S. client state, thought by U.S. policy-makers to be a bulwark against communism.

Just before flying home, we went to interview a member of the tiny Zairian opposition, Etienne Tshisekedi. We knew he was likely being watched by the security police, but he lived in a grand house on Boulevard de Trent Juin, Kinshasa's embassy row. What would be the harm in knocking on his door?

After a lovely chat of several hours, we hailed a taxi and drove away. When a young Zairian wearing dark glasses also got in, we thought nothing of it, since cabs in Zaire are shared. But soon he directed the driver to turn through the gates of another mansion, which turned out to be the dreaded National Center for Research and Investigations.

When the driver balked in horror, we jumped out and tried to struggle with the security police who suddenly surrounded us at the gate and grabbed our arms. Soon we were led firmly into the compound.

The scene inside was like a bad script from a movie. Our interrogator was a large, almost comically hostile man, who dumped all our possessions on his desk and went through them with exaggerated care, even the most personal. Dark glasses concealed his eyes, but his shirt did not quite cover his big belly. Flies buzzed around his head.

When he found political literature that Tshisekedi had given us about his political party, he smiled broadly and passed it around to his assistants. It was, he was sure, clear evidence of subversion.

Appeals that we were only journalists went beyond him, particularly when they saw our notebooks with quotations from Zairians such as "Mobutu is the biggest thief."

To our horror, we were then separated.

But the U.S. Embassy had heard of our plight from the commotion at the gates, and U.S. officials had been trying to get us out. At midnight we were released and ordered to return early in the morning for more of the same.

It went on like that for days and days, plus a daylight mugging in the crowded streets of Kinshasa that might have been instigated by the police - at least according to speculation at the U.S. Embassy. Four men jumped us from behind and threw us to the ground, taking my wallet and Winternitz's purse. Fortunately, we weren't hurt.

Eventually we began to despair of ever getting out of Mobutu's grasp and thought seriously of trying to cross the Congo at night in a dugout canoe to Brazzaville, Congo. Finally, the U.S. ambassador, Peter Constable, who had been appealing daily to Mobutu without effect, devised a plan.

He convinced Mobutu that we should be allowed to interview someone from his entourage to get his side of the Zairian story. Perhaps, the ambassador thought, Mobutu would begin to understand that we were really journalists. Constable suggested that we meet the erudite foreign minister, Kamanda wa Kamanda, but Mobutu refused to let two alleged subversives talk to such a high personage.

Instead he designated an old friend, Vunduawe te Pemako. He had just been dismissed from the government for corruption at ** the insistence of foreign donors whose aid he'd skimmed but, tellingly, he was still in Mobutu's favor.

We charmed Vunduawe and his wife, who were apparently unaware what red herrings they had been asked to invite for lunch. But unknowingly we also made a hit with Kamanda, who without introducing himself had picked us up in his Mercedes and driven us to lunch with Vunduawe.

So we were declared persona non grata, told never to return and driven to the airport in a convoy of U.S. and Zairian security.

When I received word Sunday night that Mobutu had died in exile, I wondered whether I might now be able to return to the former Zaire. But Mobutu's successor, Laurent Kabila, is as nervous about Tshisekedi, all these 14 years later, as Mobutu had been. On Monday, one of Tshisekedi's lieutenants was arrested for daring to suggest that Mobutu be buried at home.

Though he has been welcomed by the international community, including the United States, Kabila has been no more inclined to tolerate democracy than his predecessor. And he has steadfastly frustrated attempts by the United Nations to investigate substantial evidence of mass murder inside the country.

No, journalists are probably still persona non grata in there. But if U.S. foreign policy is not to follow in its own questionable footsteps, the questions must continue to be asked.

Timothy M. Phelps is Newsday's foreign editor. He was a reporter for The Sun from 1977 to 1980 and state editor and reporter from 1981 to 1985. This article was distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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