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Legendary Congo river port reopens
( 2003-08-18 11:41) (Agencies)

The six barges were covered with rust, and tattered laundry flapped across their bows. But the people of Kisangani didn't seem to mind as they rushed to the banks of the Congo River to greet the lumbering flotilla, shouting in French, "free at last, free at last."

The arrival signaled the reconnection of Kisangani, the legendary Stanleyville at the awesome bend in the Congo River, to the rest of Africa's third-largest nation after five years of civil war.

Along with 2,000 passengers, the boats also brought salt, sugar, flour, soap and construction supplies, bare necessities that had been all but absent from daily life or too costly for people cut off from the outside world with no income.

Stanleyville was founded in 1883 by Sir Henry Morton Stanley, the Anglo-American journalist who tracked down the missionary David Livingstone in Africa. In the 1950s, when the country was still a Belgian colony, the American writer John Gunther described it as having "the liveliness and efficiency of a miniature Antwerp."

Before the civil war, Kisangani was an industrial hub producing soap, beer and textiles. From the rich land beyond came timber, coffee, palm oil, bananas and cassava.

But once the river traffic was lost, markets dried up.

In August 1998, rebels captured Kisangani, effectively splitting the country and cutting off commerce with government-held territory and Kinshasa, the capital 900 miles downriver.

With soldiers, rebels and bandits lurking in the dense riverside forest, traders didn't want to risk valuable cargo, and Kisangani's commercial lifeline was cut until the barges arrived on Aug. 3.

The war formally ended last month with the establishment of a transitional government that includes the two main rebel factions, but fighting continues in many places east of Kisangani where tens of thousands of people remain cut off from vital supplies of food and medicine.

The barges brought more than 5,000 tons of desperately needed supplies in the first week, said Raymond Mokeni, president of Kisangani's chamber of commerce.

"We've been living in a situation of total misery," he said. "Three-quarters of business and industry closed, thousands lost jobs. The people have no buying power."

Its population shrunken by the war, the city now numbers no more than a few hundred thousand. Many of those who fled into the surrounding countryside to escape three major battles in 1999 and 2000 have yet to return.

During the war, everything from plastic buckets to used clothing to gasoline had to be flown in from neighboring Uganda or Rwanda, who backed the rebels and whose armies clashed in Kisangani. Prices skyrocketed, and gasoline was sold in quart bottles. A bag of cement cost $55; since the barges arrived, the price has dropped to S16.

But markets to the east remain cut off by fighting.

The SOTEXKI textile factory, once the largest employer in the city, looks abandoned. In its heyday, it turned out 2 million yards of printed cloth a month. Now it produces less than a tenth of that.

"The river opening up is essential for business, but the question now is whether there is a market," manager Lelio Picciotto said. "The population is so poor, they can't afford to buy anything."

At the nearby Bralima brewery, production of Congo's signature Primus beer, Fanta and Coca-Cola is at just three percent of capacity, director Achille Korangi said.

Before the war, Bralima produced a million gallons of beer a month, and 60 percent was shipped out of town. Now the giant onion-shaped copper tanks pump out less than 40,000 gallons a month, and the roads are so bad that not a single bottle leaves Kisangani.

The revival of river traffic means that raw materials like malt and rice can be shipped up from Kinshasa rather than flown in at seven times the cost.

But that won't solve the problem of war damage. Artillery shells knocked out two of the three turbines at the power plant, which will slow production at Bralima and SOTEXKI.

Beltexco, once the leading general store in town, has empty shelves and locked doors. For manager Asaria Iqbal the arrival of the barges was, more than anything, a psychological boost.

"When we saw the boats coming up the river, we knew for sure that the war was over."

Barge captain Mata Massandi lives in Kinshasa and hadn't seen his daughter for five years. When his barge docked in Kisangani after 11 days on the river, the 9-year-old girl was waiting.

"She's grown up so much, I hardly recognized her," Massandi said. "It's such a joy to come back. We're finding again what we once lost."

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