In 1997, after his longtime Western backers, Belgium and the United States, had abandoned him, Mobutu Sese Seko, the ruler of the country then known as Zaire, turned to mercenaries from Serbia and Ukraine in a desperate bid to beat back an accelerating insurgency.
In the middle of that war, I flew to Kisangani—the famous, centrally located river-port city that is a gateway to the vast country’s west—to watch the mercenaries drill Zairian troops and take up positions to repel an impending attack on the town. The mercenaries looked fearsome and seemed to have everything they needed to defend the city, from mortars and artillery to attack helicopters. The Zairian general in charge of the operation sounded sure of prevailing. “This is where their offensive ends,” he said of the Rwandan-backed rebels.