cover

Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Maps

Dedication

Title Page

Preface

1. Africa’s Broken Heart

2. The Final Frontier

3. Cobalt Town

4. The Pearl of Tanganyika

5. Walked to Death

6. The Jungle Books

7. Up a River Without a Paddle

8. Pirogue Progress

9. The Equator Express

10. Bend in the River

11. River Passage

12. Road Rage

Epilogue

Index

Acknowledgements

Bibliography

Copyright

About the Book

When Daily Telegraph correspondent Tim Butcher was sent to cover Africa in 2000 he quickly became obsessed with the idea of recreating H.M. Stanley’s famous expedition – but travelling alone. Despite warnings that his plan was ‘suicidal’, Butcher set out for the Congo’s eastern border with just a rucksack and a few thousand dollars hidden in his boots. Making his way in an assortment of vessels including a motorbike and a dugout canoe, helped along by a cast of characters from UN aid workers to a campaigning pygmy, he followed in the footsteps of the great Victorian adventurers. Butcher’s journey was a remarkable feat, but the story of the Congo, told expertly and vividly in this book, is more remarkable still.

About the Author

Born in 1967, Tim Butcher was on the staff of the Daily Telegraph from 1990 to 2009 serving as chief war correspondent, Africa bureau chief and Middle East correspondent. His first book, Blood River, was a number one bestseller, a Richard & Judy Book Club selection and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. He is currently based in Cape Town with his family.

tim-butcher.com

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For Jane

TIM BUTCHER

Blood River

A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

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Preface

I stirred in the pre-dawn chill, my legs pedalling for bedclothes kicked away earlier when the tropical night was at its clammiest. I could hear African voices singing to a drum beat coming from somewhere outside the room, but my view was fogged by the mosquito net, and all I could make out around me were formless shadows. Slowly and carefully, so as to not to anger them, I reached for the sheet balled next to my knees. It stank of old me and insect-repellent as I drew it over my shoulders. I was not just looking for warmth. I wanted protection. Outside was the Congo and I was terrified.

On the grubby floor next to the bed, my kit lay ready in the dark. There were my boots with their clunky tread and sandy suede uppers. Two thousand dollars were hidden in each, counted carefully the day before, folded into plastic bags and tucked under the insoles. There was my rucksack, packed and repacked several more times for reassurance with my single change of clothes, a heavy fleece, survival bag and eight bottles of filtered water. Explorers who first took on the Congo in the nineteenth century brought with them small armies bearing the latest European firearms and the best available medicines to protect against ebola, leprosy, smallpox and other fatal endemic diseases. The only protection I carried was a penknife and a packet of baby-wipes.

I was in a large town called Kalemie, but all was dark outside. It lies on the Congo’s eastern approaches, a port city on the edge of Lake Tanganyika, once connected by boat with Tanzania, Zambia and the world beyond. Forty years of decay have turned it into a disease-ridden ruin and its decrepit hydroelectric station could barely muster a flicker. As with the rest of this huge country, the locals in Kalemie have long since learned to regard electrical power as a rare blessing, not a permanent right.

Now too anxious to sleep, I got up and dressed, taking special care not to ruck the dollars as I slipped on my boots. The charcoal burner, used to warm the gluey brick of rice I had eaten the previous night, glowed as I unlocked the double padlock on the back door and pushed open the crudely-welded security gate. I was staying in a bleak building, cloudy with mosquitoes and lacking running water, but the fact that it housed an American aid group made it a target in a country where acute poverty makes lawlessness routine. Against the lightening sky in the east I could make out a crude line of jagged bottle fragments cemented to the top of the high perimeter wall.

‘Is anyone there?’ My voice set off a dog barking outside the compound. The night watchman stepped out smartly from shadows.

‘Present, patron.’ The tone of his reply made him sound like a soldier answering roll call: subservient, militaristic and deferential. It was the tone of the Congo, drilled into its people first by gun-wielding white outsiders and then by cruel local militia.

As I checked over the motorbikes I had lined up for my journey, I could feel that the guard was anxious to reassure me. ‘Don’t worry, patron, everything is okay’ he told my arched back as I bent over a rear wheel. ‘I was awake all night long and nobody came over the wall.’ He was a trained teacher, but the collapse of the Congolese state meant there was no money in teaching. The $30 he earned for a month of nights spent swatting mosquitoes in this compound was enough to keep him from his pupils.

The eastern sky was slowly growing more pale, but I turned to face west. Out there the darkness remained absolute. I felt a presence. Between me and the Atlantic Ocean lay a primeval riot of jungle, river, plain and mountain stretching for thousands of kilometres. For years I had stared at maps dominated by the Congo River, a silver-bladed sickle, its handle anchored on the coast, its tip buried deep in the equatorial forest, but now I could feel its looming sense of vastness. It scared me.

I have come to know well my own symptoms of fear. In ten years as a war correspondent I have crossed enough active frontlines and stared at enough airily-waved gun barrels to recognise how my subconscious reacts. For me terror manifests itself through clear physical symptoms, an ache that grows behind my knees and a choking dryness in my throat.

I had spent three years preparing for this moment, planning and researching, and it had already taken a week of delays and hassle just to reach this spot, but the most dangerous part of my journey was only now beginning. Feeling as if my legs were about to collapse, I croaked a faint curse against the obsession that had drawn me to the most daunting, backward country on Earth.

I fingered a piece of paper folded in my pocket. It was a travel pass bearing the smudgy ink stamps of the local district commissioner, granting permission for ‘Butcher, Timothi’ to make a journey overland to the Congo River 500 kilometres away. It spelled out the modes of transport authorised for the trip: bicycle, motorbike and dugout canoe. To reach the river I would have to travel west, crossing Katanga, a province that has been in a state of near-permanent rebellion for more than forty years, and Maniema, a province where cannibalism remains as real today as it was in the nineteenth century, when bearer parties refused to take explorers there for fear of being eaten. Even if I made it to the river, I would still have 2,500 kilometres of descent before reaching my final goal, close to where the Congo River spews into the Atlantic.

I remembered the reaction of the commissioner’s secretary in Kalemie when I had collected the pass a few days earlier. After reading my itinerary he stopped writing, put his pen down very deliberately and raised his head to look at me. The lenses of his thick-framed glasses were misty with scratches, but I could still see his pupils pulse with disbelief.

‘You want to go where?’

‘I want to go to the Congo River.’

‘You want to go overland?’

‘Yes.’

‘My family comes from a village on the way to the river, but we have not been able to go there for more than ten years. How do you think you will get there?’

‘With a motorbike and some luck.’

‘You are a white man, you will need something more than luck.’

Shaking his head slowly, his gaze dropped back to the travel pass, which he stamped with the seal of office of the District Commissioner for North Katanga. As I turned to leave I looked round the office. It had a crack in one wall so wide I could see blue sky through it, an old Bakelite telephone connected to nothing, and a tatty air that spoke of regular bouts of looting.

Commissioner Pierre Kamulete had hidden his surprise rather better when I approached him for permission to travel. He listened politely to my request, then gestured for me to join him over at the cracked wall where a large map hung. It was foxed with damp patches and bore place names that had not been used for decades. He pointed at the gap between Kalemie and the headwaters of the Congo River.

‘You see this road that is marked here?’ His finger traced what was shown as a national highway running due west from the lake. ‘It does not exist any more. And the railway here. That does not work, either. A storm washed away the bridge. I don’t know what route you will use, but it will take you a long time.’

But it wasn’t the lack of roads that really worried me. It was the rebels, especially the mai-mai.

Mai-mai is a corruption of ‘water-water’ in the local language of Swahili and refers to the magical water with which rebels douse themselves after it has been imbued with special properties by sorcerers. Believers will tell you that bullets fired at anyone sprinkled with the special water will fall harmlessly to the ground. Non-believers will tell you that mai-mai are well-armed, dangerous killers who answer to nobody but themselves.

I had seen my first mai-mai soldier earlier that day. He was sidling along the potholed main road in Kalemie. He had the swagger you see all over Africa when possession of a weapon transforms a boy into a man. His uniform was typically hotchpotch, his beret was cocked at a fashionable angle and his eyes were hidden by dark glasses. But the thing that marked him out as mai-mai was that he was carrying a bow and arrow.

‘The traditional belief system is very strong, and for the mai-mai a bow and arrow is every bit as good a weapon as a modern assault rifle. The arrow tip is dipped in poison made from plants found in the bush and the poison is highly toxic. Believe me, it works.’ My security briefing had come from Wim Verbeken, a human-rights specialist at the local United Nations headquarters built in the ruins of Kalemie’s abandoned cotton mill.

He explained how all the mai-mai in the Congo were meant to have put away their bows and arrows a year earlier under the terms of the ceasefire that supposedly ended the country’s latest civil war. But he also explained how outside the major towns like Kalemie it was impossible to enforce the agreement and how the killing, rape and violence continued in the area I wanted to travel through.

‘If we get reports of mai-mai activity, we are supposed to send a patrol to check it out. But then we also have a strict policy that we only patrol roads that are “jeepable”, that we can drive down in a jeep. Here in Kalemie the jeepable roads stop just a few kilometres outside town. I come from Belgium and this province alone is fifteen times bigger than my own country. Nobody really knows what is going on out there.’

I was grateful for his candour as he spelled out the hazards. He said there was a particular mai-mai leader who liked to be known by his radio call sign Tango Four. Wim described him in somewhat undiplomatic language as a ‘psychotic killer’ and warned me that he was still out there in the bush. But Wim hadn’t finished. He said there were also reports of activity involving the interahamwe, Hutu fugitives from Congo’s troubled neighbour, Rwanda. These were the murderers responsible for the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda and they had spent the last decade surviving in the lawless forests of eastern Congo. At this point Wim leaned right across the table for emphasis.

‘Believe me, you don’t want to meet the interahamwe.’

Thoughts of rebels and poisoned arrows swirled through my mind as I tucked the travel pass safely into a pocket. Someone could be heard running outside the compound and then came a pounding on the gate. It swung open and the sweating face of Georges Mbuyu appeared, gasping an apology.

‘I thought I was going to be late. Let’s go.’

Georges was a pygmy. A man just five foot tall and half my body weight was to be my protector through the badlands of the Congo. It was then that the backs of my knees really began to throb.

1.

Africa’s Broken Heart

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IT WAS A strange setting for a revelation. I was sunbathing on the beach of a luxury hotel next to the Indian Ocean, wearing nothing but blue swimming trunks and sunglasses, reading a book on African history. I know exactly what I had on, because around that moment someone took a photograph of me. It shows me concentrating hard, my fingers, slimy with sun-cream, splaying the pages. What it cannot show, though, is the racing surge in my heartbeat. I had just read something about the Congo that was going to change my life.

Recently appointed as Africa Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, I was doing what every new foreign correspondent must: cramming. My reading list was long. After Africa’s early tribal history came the period of exploitation by outsiders, starting with centuries of slavery and moving on to the Scramble for Africa, when the white man staked the black man’s continent in a few hectic years at the end of the nineteenth century to launch the colonial era. Then came independence in the late 1950s and 1960s when the Winds of Change swept away regimes that some white leaders had boasted would stand for ever. And it finished with the post-independence age of economic decay, war, coup and crisis, with African leaders manipulated, and occasionally murdered, by foreign powers, and dictatorships clinging to power in a continent teeming with rebels, loyalists and insurgents.

The one constant through each of these episodes was the heavy undertow of human suffering. It gnawed away at every African epoch I read about, no matter whether it was caused by nineteenth-century colonial brutes or twenty-first-century despots. Generations of Africans have suffered the triumph of disappointment over potential, creating the only continent on the planet where the normal rules of human development and advancement simply don’t apply.

It was this sense of stagnation that troubled me most as I worked through my reading list. Sub-Saharan Africa has forty-one separate countries of stunning variety – from parched desert to sweaty rainforest, from wide savannah to snow-tipped volcano – and yet as I did my background research, the history of these varied countries merged into a single, pro-forma analysis. I came to focus on which Western country exploited them during the colonial period and which dictator abused them since independence. The analysis was as crude as the underlying assumption: that African nations are doomed to victim status.

Things had been different when I was younger. I grew up in Britain in the 1970s and collected milk-bottle tops so that my Blue Peter children’s television heroes could dig wells for Kenyan villagers. My last day at school in 1985 was the day when the Live Aid concert rocked the world for victims of the Ethiopian famine. And as a student in the late 1980s I did my bit to bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa, boldly refusing to use my cash-point card in British banks linked to the white-only government.

But by the time I started working in Africa as a journalist in 2000, its patina of despair had thickened to impenetrability. An old newspaper hand took me to one side shortly before I flew out to Johannesburg and gave me some advice. This man was no fool and no brute. He had stood on a beach in west Africa twenty years earlier and watched thirteen members of the Liberian cabinet shot by rebel soldiers wearing grubby tennis shoes, a horror that scarred his soul until the day he died. But his only advice to me, the novice, was: ‘Just two things to remember in Africa – which tribe and how many dead.’

The Congo was prominent in every African era. As a child I had prided myself on knowing some of its history, about how Joseph Conrad used his time as a steamboat skipper on the mighty Congo River as the basis for his novel Heart of Darkness. I am of the Apocalypse Now generation and can remember earnest conversations in school common rooms about how film-maker Francis Ford Coppola had borrowed directly from Conrad to create his cinematographic masterpiece on the depths the human soul can plumb. My friends and I would argue about whether Conrad was being racist, suggesting that black Africa was in some way inherently evil, or whether he used equatorial Africa simply as a backdrop for a novel about how wicked any human can become.

In my early months working in Africa, the Congo’s contemporary woes soon became clear. It was in the Congo that the world’s bloodiest war was raging. It began in 1998 and, by the time I started work, it was claiming more than 1,000 lives a day. But the truly staggering thing was how this loss of life barely registered in the outside world. Like so many other places in Africa, the Congo had come to be seen as a lost cause, and the costliest conflict since the Second World War passed largely unnoticed.

Before my moment of revelation, I found all of this a curiosity. What drove my interest up a quantum level was when, lolling on my sun lounger, I discovered a direct, personal link to the Congo and its turbulent history. I read that it had all been started by another reporter sent to Africa by the Telegraph more than a century before me. His name was Henry Morton Stanley.

In the Victorian era, Stanley was the world’s best-known journalist, famous for the scoop of the century – tracking down the Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, in November 1871. The soundbite he came up with was as glib and memorable as any a modern spin doctor could conjure. Stanley’s ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume,’ greeting remains so dominant that it has overshadowed his much greater and more significant achievement.

It came on his next epic trip to Africa between 1874 and 1877, when he solved the continent’s last great geographical mystery by mapping the Congo River. Commissioned jointly by the Telegraph and an American newspaper, The New York Herald, he hacked his way through a swathe of territory never before visited by a white man, crossing the Congo River basin and proving that the continent’s previously impenetrable hinterland could be opened up by steamboats on a single, huge river. He presumed to name the river Livingstone, in honour of his mentor, but it is now known as the Congo. His methods were brutal, opening fire on tribesmen who did not instantly obey, pillaging food and supplies. And his brazenness in describing his methods when he eventually reached home stirred angry controversy among humanitarian activists of the day. But their complaints were deafened by the hero’s welcome Stanley received when he returned to London in 1878.

His Congo fame was fleeting. At the Telegraph’s London headquarters today there is a modest collection of paintings and busts of the paper’s luminaries. But there is no mention of Stanley or his Congo trip, even though it changed history more dramatically than anything the newspaper has ever been involved with.

Stanley’s adventure caught the eye of a minor European monarch, Leopold II, King of the Belgians. Leopold read about Stanley’s expedition in the newspaper, seeing past the reporter’s colourful account of cannibals, man-eating snakes and river rapids so ferocious they devoured men by the canoe-load. Desperate for a colony that would mark Belgium’s arrival as a world power, Leopold saw rich potential in Stanley’s story. The explorer had found a river that was navigable across much of central Africa and Leopold envisaged it as the main artery of a huge Belgian colony, shipping European manufactured goods upstream and valuable African raw materials downstream.

Stanley’s Congo expedition fired the starting gun for the Scramble for Africa. Before his trip, white outsiders had spent hundreds of years nibbling at Africa’s edges, claiming land around the coastline, but rarely venturing inland. Disease, hostile tribes and the lack of any clear commercial potential in Africa meant that hundreds of years after white explorers first circumnavigated its coastline, it was still referred to in mysterious terms as the Dark Continent, a source of slaves, ivory and other goods, but not a place white men thought worthy of colonisation. It was Leopold’s jostling for the Congo that forced other European powers to stake claims to Africa’s interior, and within two decades the entire continent had effectively been carved up by the white man. The modern history of Africa – decades of colonial exploitation and post-independence chaos – was begun by a Telegraph reporter battling down the Congo River.

Reading about this epoch-changing journey seeded an idea in my mind that soon grew into an obsession. To shed my complacency about modern Africa and try to understand it properly, it was clear what I had to do: I would go back to where it all began, following Stanley’s original journey of discovery through the Congo. The historical symmetry of working for the same paper as Stanley was appealing, but this alone was not enough. What really stirred me was the sense of challenge that the Congo represented. I had covered wars in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and elsewhere, but the work had started to feel routine. I wanted to leave the journalistic herd, to find a project that would both daunt and inspire me. Facing down the Congo was just such a project.

I don’t need that beach photograph to remind me how excited I felt at that moment. And I don’t need it to remind me how fear overwhelmed the excitement. It was not just the war that made the idea of crossing the Congo dangerous. There was something far more sinister.

For me the Congo stands as a totem for the failed continent of Africa. It has more potential than any other African nation, more diamonds, more gold, more navigable rivers, more fellable timber, more rich agricultural land. But it is exactly this sense of what might be that makes the Congo’s failure all the more acute. Economists have no meaningful data with which to chart its decline. Much of its territory has long been abandoned to a feral state of lawlessness and brutality. With a colonial past bloodier than anywhere in Africa, the Congo represents the sum of my African fears and the root of my outsider’s shame.

Decay has hollowed the Congo name. It has a rich history, but of its present, precious little is known. People remember flickers from its past – the brutality of the early colonials, the post-independence chaos of elected leaders beaten to death, corrupt dictators whittling away the nation’s wealth, mercenaries running amok in wars too complex for the outside world to bother with, rebels who rely on cannibalism and fetishism. Foreign journalists smirk at an old Congo story dating from the 1960s when rape was so common that a British reporter approached a column of refugees demanding, ‘Is there a nun here who’s been raped and speaks English?’

Travellers have long since stopped venturing there and the remnants of a once-booming African economy are regarded as too murky and risky for most conventional business travellers. Today, only a handful of aid workers, peacekeepers and journalists dare visit, but the vast scale of the place – from one side to the other is greater than the distance from London to Moscow – and the depth of its problems make it difficult to focus on much beyond a particular project in a particular place. I wanted to do something more complete, something that had not been done for decades, to draw together the Congo’s fractious whole by travelling Stanley’s 3,000-kilometre route from one side to the other.

In part my obsession came from another Congo journey that had nothing to do with Stanley. In late 1958 two young, middle-class English girls, lugging trunks full of souvenirs and party frocks, crossed the Congo. My mother and a close school friend were in their early twenties and, for them, the Congo was simply another leg in a rich travel adventure. Sent to colonial Africa as a sort of unofficial finishing school, they had worked, danced, giggled and charmed their way through a series of jobs and house parties, from Cape Town in South Africa to Salisbury, then the capital of Rhodesia.

They were nearing the end of their journey when they entered the Congo. Within a year the country would be at war, but today my mother recalls no sense of that impending doom. In all honesty, she remembers little about the trip by rail and steamboat, and it was only after I began my Congo research that she let me in on a family secret she had not talked about for decades. She was only twenty-one at the time, but while in Salisbury she had fallen in love and become engaged to a retired officer. The fact that he was divorced with three children was too much for my maternal grandmother, a woman so unutterably proper that she talked of ‘gells’ rather than ‘girls’. My granny flew all the way to Rhodesia to bully her daughter into breaking off the engagement. ‘I howled all the way through the Congo’ is how my mother describes the trip, which she otherwise remembers as being no trickier than any other part of her 1950s African journey.

And that really was the point. Half a century ago there was nothing out-of-the-ordinary about the Congo. It was integrated, not just with the rest of the continent, but with the rest of the world. The Congo’s colonial capital, Leopoldville, named after the acquisitive Belgian monarch, was the hub of one of Africa’s largest airline networks, and the country’s main port, Matadi, was served by a fleet of ocean-going liners. I have a picture of a poster from a Belgian shipping line that overlays an image of a ship on an outline of a very tame-looking Congo. The image was not of a sinister place at all, but of a swathe of African territory accessible by railways represented with cross-hatching, or by shipping routes depicted by elegant red arrows. Trains from the neighbouring Portuguese colony that later became Angola shuttled in and out of the Congo through its copper-rich Katanga province. There were bus links with Rhodesia and across Lake Tanganyika a fleet of ferries moved goods and people to the former colony of German East Africa.

A flavour of that era comes from a guidebook I discovered in a second-hand bookshop in Johannesburg. The 1951 Travel Guide to the Belgian Congo runs to 800 pages of information for visitors. Some of the detail is wonderfully mundane. The names and location of scores of guest houses are listed, along with prices of meals and journey times between local towns. The procedure for buying a hunting licence is spelled out, along with lists of the national parks and their viewing hours. Maps show, in precise detail, the country’s road network, spreading right across the rainforest and climbing over mountain ranges, and the book lists itineraries with helpful hints about turning left at Kilometre 348 or buying pottery from the natives, les indigènes. It has hundreds of black-and-white photographs that show a functioning country – bridges, churches, schools, post offices and towns. And, in blue ink, the inside cover is inscribed ‘Annaliesa’. In my imagination, Annaliesa used it to plan genteel trips to visit waterfalls or go on safari. Today those same journeys would be impossible.

The book conveys the sort of normality my mother recalled. Mum described her steamboat journey through virgin rainforest and how she would lean over the rail to point at sparring hippos, and spot the breaks in the bush where fishing villages of thatched huts stood on the river bank. You could always identify the villages, she said, because of the cluster of needle-thin canoes hanging in the river’s current beneath each settlement. She remembered how the boat dropped her off, apparently in the middle of nowhere, only for her to scramble up the muddy river bank and find, half-hidden by towering elephant grass, a steam-train waiting to take its passengers on the next leg of their journey, with a steward, clad in a peaked cap of rail-company livery, anxious to keep to the timetable.

On the wall of our home in a Northamptonshire village she hung some of the souvenirs she bought from Congolese hawkers. There were brightly coloured crayon pictures of tribal stickmen dancing and hunting against an elegant background of grass huts or canoes. On a rainy day in the British Midlands in the 1970s they took a child’s mind far away to equatorial Africa, to a country my mother still cannot bring herself to call anything but ‘The Belgian Congo’.

She still has packs of unsent postcards produced in Leopoldville. The cards, printed in 1950s Technicolour, show naive Congolese scenes – tribal hunters in headdresses, jungle elephants glaring at the camera and loincloth-clad fishermen. My mother’s view was just as rose-tinted. She knew nothing of the brutality that the Belgians used to maintain their rule, or of the turbulent currents then drawing the Congo towards independence. As a child, I would ask her what had happened to this place where officials stamped her passport with funny French messages in red ink, but she knew little and cared even less.

‘A year or so after we passed through, there was all that beastliness in the Congo,’ was her understated way of putting it. My route would take me through some of the places she visited in 1958, but when I started seriously planning the journey it was clear I would face a great deal of ‘beastliness’.

‘It cannot be done. For many years it has been impossible for an outsider to travel through the east of this country.’ This doom-laden analysis on the Democratic Republic of Congo, the modern name of the territory colonised by the Belgians, came from Justin Marie Bomboko. We met in his once grand but now tatty apartment in the capital, Kinshasa, formerly Leopoldville. A tidemark of white spittle flecked the crease of his mouth, and his eyes were emotionless behind thick-framed glasses, identical to those worn by his former sponsor, Mobutu Sese Seko. From 1965 until 1997 Mobutu had ruled the Congo as an African emperor, plundering the country’s mining revenues and surrounding himself with a wealthy elite, known in Congolese street patois as Les Grosses Légumes, a euphemism for Fat Cats. Mr Bomboko was one of the fattest. Twice he had served as Foreign Minister, during the period when Mobutu had the country’s name changed to Zaire, and for a long time back in the 1960s this now elderly and frail man was kingmaker in the Congo, chairman of an unelected, executive committee of young men, mostly in their thirties, running a country larger than western Europe.

It was January 2001 and I was visiting the Congo for the first time. I had flown to Kinshasa which lies on the southern bank of the Congo River in the west of the country, to cover the aftermath of the assassination of Laurent Kabila, the rebel who ousted Mobutu in 1997. Diplomats, world leaders and African experts had expressed a degree of optimism about Mr Kabila’s arrival, confident that he could do no worse than Mobutu. They were disappointed. Mr Kabila had morphed into the worst type of African dictator – greedy, petty and brutal – and under his reign the Congo’s collapse continued. His murder (shot at point-blank range by a bodyguard, who was mown down seconds later by more loyal bodyguards at the presidential palace in Kinshasa) gave me the first real opportunity to sound out the possibility of crossing the Congo.

Even though Mr Bomboko lived in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, technically he had opted out of sovereign Congolese territory. He had taken the precaution of moving inside the Belgian diplomatic compound. When I saw the high security fence and well-armed guards that protected both the embassy and his home from the chaos of Kinshasa, I did not need to ask why.

Mr Bomboko was more than seventy years old when I met him. In a sombre voice, he described, in painstaking detail, the series of rebellions and invasions that had gripped his country for forty years. Listing them took over an hour and by the time he finished his declaiming, the flecks of spittle round his mouth had formed into two distinct splodges.

‘The big mistake that Mobutu made was becoming friends with the Hutus to the east of our country.’ His voice was steady and dispassionate. ‘By allying Congo with the Hutus in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mobutu laid the foundations for today’s crisis.’

Mobutu’s relationship with the Hutu leaders of Rwanda went beyond mere friendship. He had been so close to Juvénal Habyarimana, the Hutu president of Rwanda whose assassination in 1994 triggered the Rwandan genocide, that the body of his friend had been flown to Kinshasa for burial. And days before Mobutu himself was ousted, he had the remains of Habyarimana exhumed and cremated, so that he could flee the country with the ashes of his old ally.

‘When the genocide ended in Rwanda, the Hutu gunmen responsible for the killings, the interahamwe, were invited by Mobutu to flee into the Congo. They came by the thousand and ten years later they are still there, hiding in the forests near our eastern borders. They are the biggest single source of instability in the country,’ Mr Bomboko explained.

It was the presence of those Hutu gunmen after 1994 that led to Mr Kabila’s early success in ousting Mobutu, ally of the Hutus. The Tutsi regime that had taken over Rwanda, and driven the Hutu killers into the Congo, were happy to exploit Mr Kabila’s ambitions to replace Mobutu. The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government sent troops, arms and money to support Mr Kabila’s insurgency against Mobutu. And Mr Kabila received similar support from Uganda, anxious to silence its own rebel enemies lurking across the border inside the Congo, staging raids into Ugandan territory. With Rwandan and Ugandan military backing, Kabila swept away Mobutu’s regime in a few heady months in early 1997. Mobutu fled and a few months later, in September 1997, died a painful death from prostate cancer in Morocco, far from the homeland he had misruled for so long.

Kabila’s close relationship with Uganda and Rwanda did not last. Both insisted on keeping troops on the Congolese side of the border, stating that they had not mopped up the rebels they had been so interested in silencing. In reality, the motives of Rwanda and Uganda in maintaining a presence in the Congo were more grubby. They wanted to keep the easy money they were earning from various Congolese mines producing gold, tin and other minerals in the east of the Congo.

Within a year, the relationship between Kabila and his two erstwhile allies, Rwanda and Uganda, had deteriorated into all-out war. Without any meaningful army of his own, Kabila effectively bribed local countries to fight on his behalf. Zimbabwe sent troops to support Kabila, but only as long as Zimbabwean generals were allowed to keep the profits from cobalt and diamond mines in the south of the country. Angola sent troops to help Kabila, but only if deals were agreed to share offshore oil. The war was complex – at one point it drew in the armies of Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, against the armies of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Chad, Angola and Namibia – and it was very bloody, with a death toll that would eventually exceed four million.

This was the background to Mr Bomboko solemnly shaking his head when I asked him about the possibility of travelling across the country.

‘The problem you face is that the country is split in so many parts. The government barely controls the capital, as you can see outside.’

Mr Bomboko did not have to explain further. A few hours earlier I had been dragged out of a car by soldiers in broad daylight and threatened at gunpoint, while my local driver was cuffed viciously about the head with the butt of a rifle. We were only a few yards from the British Embassy, in the city’s upmarket diplomatic quarter, but at that time nowhere was safe in the city. The British Ambassador’s staff had even readied the motorboat that was kept not just for Sunday jaunts, but as a means of escape. While Leopold staked most of the Congo River basin as his colony, the French claimed a much smaller slice of territory for themselves on the north bank of the river. The former French colony is today known as Republic of the Congo and its capital, Brazzaville, lies just two kilometres from Kinshasa on the other side of the river.

In the chaotic days after Laurent Kabila’s death, Kinshasa was a very scary place. Even though he was already dead, his supporters had his body smuggled to Harare on a private jet owned by a friendly Zimbabwean businessman and then made public statements that he was still alive. It was a ploy to buy enough time to arrange a suitable succession, and in the meantime loyalist vigilantes were out on the streets searching for culprits, and looters were helping themselves to whatever they could find. The soldiers were the most dangerous of all. Most of the senior ranks defending Kabila’s regime did not even come from Kinshasa, but from his home province of Katanga, almost 2,000 kilometres away to the east. Swahili-speakers by birth, they could not communicate with the capital’s Lingala-speaking population. These soldiers were a long way from home and their patron had just been killed – they were scared, jumpy and aggressive.

I had joined the small group of foreign journalists who flew to Kinshasa after news emerged of Kabila’s shooting. All scheduled flights were cancelled, so we chartered planes and scrambled for visas. The Congo’s reputation made that flight unique, even for seasoned hacks. Instead of the excited chatter and world-weary cockiness that I had experienced among colleagues on other journeys to major news stories, that flight was deafeningly quiet. We sat in silence as the plane dipped down through thick tropical cloud cover and I caught my first glimpse of the Congo River, a wide smear of gun-metal grey under rainy-season skies. Near Kinshasa, the river balloons to twenty kilometres in breadth, a reach still named Stanley Pool after the explorer. The city below us is home to nine million people, but from the air it seemed as small as a riverside village next to the vast expanse of water. I tried to imagine how Stanley felt when, at the end of his three-year-long journey, he reached this sea-like stretch.

My own feelings were perfectly clear as I reached the scruffy arrivals hall at the airport. I was terrified. I can still picture the pudgy face of the airport security official as he spotted a Ugandan visa in my passport. Like the reels of a slot-machine shuddering to a jackpot, his pupils flickered both with suspicion and greed. Uganda was still at war with the Kabila regime and, seeing that I had been there only a few months earlier, the official started whispering to his boss. The only word I could make out was espion, spy, but it was enough to make my heart stand still.

I was bundled into a side-room. My passport disappeared and I was left alone. Over the next few hours a series of officials traipsed in and out, alternately threatening and then reassuring me. It was ghastly. In the end, I was forced to pay a ‘recovery fee’ for my passport, ushered out of the office and told to get lost.

It set the tone of the trip. Even in Africa, the Congo has few rivals for corruption. A hanger-on at the airport jumped into my wreck of a cab before coolly informing me that he was a government-approved minder and must be paid hundreds of dollars for his services. Once I had reached one of only two hotels still functioning for outsiders, I bundled my bags onto the pavement at the feet of a security guard and felt bold enough to brush him off. But when it came to the ‘journalist’s accreditation fee’ demanded by officials at the Ministry of Information, I was more feeble. Along with all the other foreign reporters I had been made to stomp sweatily up to the ministry’s seventeenth-floor offices, in a government building where the lift had not worked properly for years, and along with the rest of my colleagues I dutifully handed over hundreds of dollars for my ‘press pass’ for Kabila’s state funeral.

All of this I viewed as par for an African country in crisis. What made that trip so memorable was that never had I been so professionally out of my depth. As a reporter I had worked in Baghdad during Saddam Hussein’s rule, in Sarajevo under Serbian siege and in Algiers when its people were being slaughtered by Muslim fundamentalists, but I have never been as petrified, disorientated and overwhelmed as I was during that first trip to the Congo. None of us could find out who was behind the assassination, why it had happened or what it really meant for the Congo, but at least we were not alone in our ignorance. Nobody seemed to know what was going on – not the local army officers, not the diplomats and certainly not the country’s political leadership. Writing now, four years later, there is still no clear account of who killed Kabila. There are plenty of conspiracy theories and rumours: the most colourful suggests that the dictator was killed for welshing on a diamond deal with Lebanese gangsters. But the mystery surrounding Kabila’s death remains intact.

Back then, the reporters barely ventured outside Kinshasa’s functioning hotels and, when we did, we soon hurried back to swap stories of how we had been detained by rogue army units, had our press passes sold back to us by corrupt officials or been set upon by angry crowds of Congolese people whipped into xenophobic hysteria by the local media.

On Friday 26 January 2001 the Democratic Republic of Congo failed spectacularly to live up to its name when it installed Kabila’s son, Joseph, as head of state without bothering with any election. We journalists struggled for information about the new leader. It was almost impossible. We could not even find out his age. Within hours of his accession, I joined all the other foreign reporters scurrying home on the first flight after the funeral, shaking our heads at the chaos in the country and taking solace in the advice of the older, more experienced hands, who said this was quite normal for the Congo.

It was deeply unsettling to be so completely beaten by a story. My journalistic vanity had been pricked and I was too proud to let it pass. Crossing the Congo was now my personal obsession, and it was clear that if the Congolese government could not help, then I would have to get to know some of the rebels.

It took a volcanic eruption to cement my relationship with one of the Congo’s most important rebel leaders. I was walking my dogs early one morning in Johannesburg when my mobile phone rang. The echo on the line told me it was a call from a satellite phone, and the booming voice with a heavy French accent told me I was speaking to Adolphe Onusumba, the leader of the main rebel group based in Goma, Congo’s most easterly town on its border with Rwanda.

‘The volcano has erupted above Goma and the whole town is being consumed. You must come quickly and tell the world we need help.’ Adolphe sounded frantic.

Six months earlier I had first approached Adolphe about crossing the Congo. As president of the RCD (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie), the principal pro-Rwanda rebel group involved in the war, he had influence over some of the gunmen active in the east of the country. After the disappointment of my visit to Kinshasa, these were the groups I had to get to know.

Throughout the war he and the other major rebel leaders were flown from time to time to peace talks sponsored by the United Nations. I arranged an appointment with Adolphe during one of his stops in South Africa. It was mid-winter and we met in a modest hotel, where he was being put up by the UN. He was the leader of one of the largest unofficial Congolese militias responsible for atrocities that many describe as war crimes, so I admit I was rather apprehensive. I expected a man with military bearing and a cold demeanour. Instead, the figure who greeted me in the hotel coffee shop was young, jolly and shambling, with rather a friendly smile.

He listened closely as I explained my historical connection to Stanley through the Telegraph and how his Congo trip changed Africa. I had already delivered the same pitch to aid workers, journalists and diplomats, so I treated him to my party trick, rolling out an old map of the Congo that I had bought from a hawker in Kinshasa and on which I had traced my rough route all the way from Lake Tanganyika on the country’s eastern approaches to its western edge where the Congo River joins the Atlantic.

The map was a handsome thing produced in 1961 by the geographical institute of the Belgian Defence Ministry. Across the Congo reached a red web indicating roads, black dashes for the railways and pale-blue streaks for navigable rivers, the whole thing studded with topographical markings for mines, churches, missions and settlements.

Adolphe bent over the map as I continued to deliver my patter. I was getting into my stride, talking about the historical importance of the trip, when it became apparent that he was not actually listening. He was tracing his forefinger up and down the middle of the map, mumbling to himself. My voice trailed away to nothing and for several minutes I watched him as he concentrated in silence.

Finally he snorted. ‘There,’ he said, pointing carefully with his fingernail and turning his beaming face up to mine. ‘That is where I was born.’

‘When were you last there?’ I asked as I peered at the minuscule script next to a confluence of Congo tributaries where he was pointing.

‘Maybe fifteen years ago. I cannot remember, to be honest. There is nothing there now.’

I found it very moving when he pleaded for a copy of the map. No better map had been produced since 1961, and it seemed to connect him to a lost childhood. He knew the red road system had been reclaimed by the jungle and the mission stations abandoned, but, for a moment at least, the map took him back to a cherished memory of an earlier, less chaotic Congo.

‘At this time I cannot guarantee anything. The fighting is too bad and there are too many groups operating there, many of whom answer to no outside authority. But the situation can change, and so let’s keep in contact.’ In the circumstances, it was the best I could hope for. The leader of the Congo’s largest rebel group had not ruled out my trip completely.

When I arrived in Goma six months later to cover the eruption, Adolphe had better things to worry about than my travel plans. Millions of tonnes of molten volcanic rock had glugged in a malodorous slick from the peak of Mount Nyiragongo straight through the town centre. This eruption was not of the explosive, carry-all-before-it sort. It was more sedate, just an endless flow of liquid rock creeping inexorably down the mountainside, burning and smothering everything in its path. You could walk faster than the lava flowed, so few people actually died. They simply made their way to high ground and watched as the lava stream consumed their houses and much of their town, before slopping steamily into Lake Kivu. Goma was built on the shore of the lake as a riviera-style resort for Belgian colonialists, and the lava flow passed through the remains of some of its grandest lakeside villas, with their old boathouses and sun terraces.

By now I was beginning to believe the Congo had some strange hold over bad news. It was somehow no surprise that Africa’s worst volcanic eruption in decades should happen here. While the lava flow could have gone in countless other directions from the mountain top, damaging nothing but rainforest, the stream had in fact come straight down the main street of Goma, swallowing the town’s Catholic cathedral and cutting the airport runway neatly in two. In July 1994 the town witnessed hellish scenes after an outbreak of cholera among hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees, who had fled to the town from neighbouring Rwanda when the Tutsis took power. The disease killed so many that bulldozers struggled to dig mass graves quick enough to dispose of the bodies. Atrocities were committed in Goma in 1997 and 1998 when Tutsi soldiers from Rwanda tried to clear Hutu gunmen from the town’s remaining refugee camps, and yet again this benighted town had been hit.

‘I told them this would happen. I told them an eruption was imminent and it would come through the town centre.’ Dieudonné Wafula sounded like a raving madman when I first bumped into him among the crowds watching the lava stream. He was holding a bundle of papers, waving them furiously, so I asked if I could have a look.

‘There it is,’ he said, pointing at the top sheet. It was a letter he had written several months earlier, accurately predicting Nyiragongo’s eruption. ‘I sent it to the Americans but they did not listen, they did not listen.’

Dieudonné was no evangelist. He was the Congo’s sole volcanologist.