In every trouble spot I have cautiously visited, there has always been one watering hole where, as if by secret rite, hacks, spies, aid workers and carpetbaggers converge. In Saigon, it was the Continental; in Phnom Penh, the Pnom; in Vientiane, the Constellation; in Beirut, the Commodore; and here in Bukavu it's the Orchid, a gated, low-built lakeside colonial villa surrounded by discreet cabins. The owner is a worldly wise colon who would have bled to death in one of Kivu's wars had not his late brother smuggled him to safety. In a corner of the dining room sits a German lady of a certain age who talks wistfully to strangers of the days when Bukavu was all white, and she could drive her Alfa Romeo at sixty miles an hour down the boulevard.
Next morning we retrace her route, but not at her speed. The boulevard is still wide and straight but, like every street in Bukavu, pitted by red rainwater gushing off the surrounding mountains. The houses are fallen gems of Art Nouveau metro-land, with rounded corners, long windows and porches like cinema organs. Where there are new buildings, the same style is replicated today. The town itself is built on five peninsulas, ''a green hand dipped in the lake," as it is locally described. The largest and once the most fashionable is La Botte, where Mobutu kept one of his many residences. According to the soldiers who barred our entry, the same villa was being refurbished for the new president, Joseph Kabila, Kivu-born son of the Maoist revolutionary and wheeler-dealer who in 1997 drove Mobutu from power and four years later was murdered by his own bodyguard. A steamy haze hangs over the lake for most of the day. The border with Rwanda splits it longways. The toe of La Botte tips provocatively eastward. The fish are very small. The lake's monster is called mamba mutu, half-woman and half-crocodile. What she likes best is eating human brains.
We enter a Roman Catholic seminary. Its windowless brick walls are unlike anything around them in the street. Behind them lies a world of tranquil gardens, television dishes, guest rooms, conference rooms, computers, libraries and mute servants. In the canteen an old white priest in jeans shuffles to the coffee urn, gives us a long, unearthly stare and goes his way. He suffered greatly but survived, our host explains, and laments how his fellow African priests are at risk from penitents who confess their ethnic hatreds too eloquently. Once inflamed, they are capable of becoming the worst extremists of them all. Thus in Rwanda, priests were known to summon all the Tutsis in their parish to the church, which was then torched or bulldozed with the priests' connivance.
My first warlord, Thomas, is about as far removed from my expectation as he could decently be. He is tall and elegantly dressed, and receives us with diplomatic grace. His house, guarded by sentries with semiautomatic rifles, is spacious and representational. A plasma television screen plays silent football while we talk. He speaks for the Banyamulenge, and his people have been fighting wars in Congo pretty well nonstop since 1966, but his own war was spent in South Africa, lobbying for their cause. The Banyamulenge, I had read, are pastoralists originally from Rwanda who over the last couple of hundred years have settled the high plateaus of the Mulenge mountains of South Kivu. Feared for their battle skills and reclusiveness, and hated for their supposed affinity with Rwanda, they are the first to be pilloried in times of discontent. Would the upcoming elections make things any better for them? we asked. His reply was not encouraging. The losers will say the vote was rigged, and they'll be right. The winner will take all, because why else win? Candidates are vying to demonstrate their pro-Congolese, anti-Rwandan credentials, so it will be open season on the Banyamulenge.
Thomas was similarly unimpressed by Kinshasa's efforts to incorporate Congo's many armed groups into one national army: ''We have many men who have joined and then defected to the mountains. In the army they kill us and insult us, although we have fought many battles for them.''
There was a chink of hope, he conceded. The Mai Mai, who regard themselves as the keepers of a Congo free of all ''invaders'' and ''foreigners''--including the Banyamulenge--are also learning the high price that must be paid to become a soldier of Kinshasa. ''Maybe as the Mai Mai learn to mistrust Kinshasa, they will draw closer to us.''
Afterward, I ask Jason whether Thomas was right to be gloomy about the forthcoming elections. By and large, thought Jason, he was. Elections were only one trapping of a democratic system. Without a Parliament, courts or an administration, they merely decided who got to rip off the country next. Thirty percent of Congolese lived on one meal a day. Eighty percent earned less than a dollar a day. The losers had guns, and would very probably use them to contest the outcome. And yes, another Congolese war could follow. Next day we met a colonel of Mai Mai, the largest and most notorious of Congo's many armed militias.