Excerpt from In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz

Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo

by Michela Wrong

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2001, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2002, 368 pages

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Print Excerpt

From The Introduction

The feeling struck home within seconds of disembarking.

When the motor-launch deposited me in the cacophony of the quayside, engine churning mats of water hyacinth as it turned to head back across the brown expanse of oily water that was the River Zaire, I was hit by the sensation that so unnerves first-time visitors to Africa. It is that revelatory moment when white, middle-class Westerners finally understand what the rest of humanity has always known--that there are places in this world where the safety net they have spent so much of their lives erecting is suddenly whipped away, where the right accent, education, health insurance and a foreign passport --all the trappings that spell 'It Can't Happen to Me'--no longer apply, and their well-being depends on the condescension of strangers......

Chapter One

You can check out any time you like,
but you can never leave



Kinshasa, 17 May 1997

Dear Guest,

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.

The Management


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.

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