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Eastern Zaire wakes up with rebel radio

February 23, 1997

BUKAVU, Zaire (AP) _ In ``liberated″ eastern Zaire, people keep one ear glued to what’s known as rebel radio. They have little choice _ Radio of the People is the only Zairian station on the air.

The rebel chief calls it ``a good instrument for the struggle″ and says it’s winning him support. The government considers it a threat _ Zairian warplanes dropped a bomb last week just yards from a hilltop antenna.

Radio of the People is the only form of mass communication in eastern Zaire, which has no telephone lines, no postal routes, no newspapers. It’s almost impossible to tune in government-owned Voice of Zaire because of the strategic destruction of relay towers.

``That is why we are getting support from the population,″ rebel leader Laurent Kabila told The Associated Press. Broadcasts are used to make listeners ``aware of the source of their misery and the need of change,″ he said.

The Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire began radio broadcasts on Nov. 5, within days of gaining Bukavu, the largest town on Zaire’s eastern border.

``We have two wars here. One on the front against President Mobutu Sese Seko and his mercenaries. The other here, in the mind,″ radio director David Mabele said.

In the beginning, the unpaid staff recalled stepping over bodies to reach the studio _ a makeshift affair at a secret location that’s built to be moved at a moment’s notice.

Three months later, many respect Radio of the People as a good source of information and advice, though some younger people wish they heard a little more reggae and a little less politics.

``It tells us what we need to know,″ said Mutimanu Babutwa, a resident of Bukavu.

Radio of the People is on the air 6 1/2 hours a day, broadcasting national and international news, public service announcements, revolutionary music and the occasional pop hit, such as Michael Jackson’s ``Heal the World.″

In addition to French and Swahili, which are commonly spoken in Zaire, the station broadcasts news in English.

``More English speakers are coming here _ aid workers and, of course, some soldiers fighting for the Alliance, and they need to be informed about what’s happening,″ said English-speaking journalist Roy Ruvuna. The rebel movement has attracted fighters from countries including Uganda, where French is not spoken.

News comes from the station’s own reporters; dispatches that are hand-delivered, often weeks late, from outposts in rebel-held territory; and by repeating what’s carried on international radio and television.

It’s all wrapped around palatable doses of propaganda and pleas for more fighters.

Ruvuna said he is free to report the news, unlike when broadcasts were controlled by Mobutu’s government or paid for by sources seeking publicity.

He acknowledged, however, that the radio has never criticized the Alliance. His explanation: ``Mr. Kabila has never been mistaken. He has won the confidence of the people.″

He added: ``I hope he is not mistaken in future.″

Ruvuna said he worries about what will happen to him if the Zairian army retakes eastern Zaire. ``People all over town say they will kill all the journalists of the Alliance,″ he said.

Program director Philip Mbilizi said because the former government failed to provide reliable news, and people got information from a web of rumors _ what he called ``sidewalk radio.″ ``To counter the sidewalk radio, you have to tell the people the truth.″

Sports apparently are apolitical: although based on the other side of the front line, the Zairian soccer team’s scores are announced.

The radio also tries to instruct people on how to live better lives.

Bukavu residents are told not to throw fruit pits, corn husks or bananas peels in the streets because garbage smells bad and attracts rats and bugs, which can cause disease.

It also advised city dwellers to plant grass, trees and flowers instead of crops such as manioc and corn, which can cause erosion.

The announcements seem to be working. Bukavu is tidier and flowers nod from many street corners.

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