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A woman's machete-ravaged face testifies to the brutality of Congo's conflict. (JAMES AKENA/James Akena/Reuters)
A woman's machete-ravaged face testifies to the brutality of Congo's conflict. (JAMES AKENA/James Akena/Reuters)

Africa's great riddle

The bleak calculus of Congo's war without end Add to ...

In a decade of war, Biringiro Kamanutse has tried to go home four times - only to flee for his life each time. A few weeks ago, rebels attacked his village, killing and looting, even taking his clothes and cooking pans. Mr. Kamanutse and his family took shelter in a nearby village, but it too was attacked, so they trudged two days through the bush to reach a camp at Kitchanga, where up to 20,000 refugees are crowded in tiny huts of sticks and straw.

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While still in the bush, he heard politicians on the radio talking about peace and progress. "They say we can go home - it's safe, it's quiet," he says. "But it has no connection to reality."

For millions of Congolese, the brutality that plagues their daily lives is all too real - even if almost everyone else would just as soon forget about a conflict so devastating that some call it  "Africa's  world war." With a death toll surpassing that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, it is one of the bloodiest and longest-running struggles anywhere. Nobody knows how many people have died since the latest fighting erupted, but estimates range as high as 5 million, including those who have died from the illness and hunger it has caused. As well, hundreds of thousands of women, many of them still girls, have been raped; soldiers on all sides use sexual violence like a weapon.

The United Nations' largest active peacekeeping force - 20,000 soldiers from dozens of countries - has failed to halt the atrocities. In fact, there are those who argue that the peacekeepers sometimes make things worse.

A year ago, hope for peace soared when the government of President Joseph Kabila signed a pact with a key rebel group. Yet the lush green hills and forests of this starkly beautiful land are still in turmoil - caught up in an endless scramble for the vast mineral wealth that in little more than a decade has attracted invaders from seven nearby countries.

Despite the continued fighting, the government is trying to shut the refugee camps scattered across Congo's eastern provinces, where 1.4 million are homeless, including 900,000 displaced in the past year alone. But most people are too fearful to go home - with good reason.

Human Rights Watch has reported that at least 1,400 civilians, including many women and children, were killed in "horrendous abuses" by both government and rebel forces. In some cases, the attackers "slit their throats like chickens" or gang-raped them so viciously that they bled to death from their injuries. Those who survive are often abducted as forced labour.

And now there are fears that the situation will get worse. Not only is President Kabila trying to close the refugee camps, but June 30 will mark the  50th anniversary of Congo's independence - an occasion he wants to observe with the UN's blue helmets, if not gone, packing their bags.





Violence and corruption

In popular legend, Congo is known best as the fictional Heart of Darkness - even though Joseph Conrad invented the term to describe those who exploit it, not for the country itself. Stretching almost 2,000 kilometres from the Atlantic coast inland to the Rwanda border, the Democratic Republic of Congo is as big as Western Europe and famed for its incredible resources, forests and minerals ranging from diamonds and gold to copper and tin.

Yet more than any other African nation, Congo has a history dominated by a combination of violence and corruption. For more than a century, it has known little beyond bloodshed and kleptocracy, from the nineteenth-century reign of Belgium's King Leopold II - the cousin of Queen Victoria who ran the place as a private fiefdom, working an estimated 10 million Congolese to death as he plundered its rubber trade - to the equally murderous Mobutu Sese Seko, the eccentric dictator who seized power five years after independence, held it for more than 30 years and in the process renamed the country Zaire.

The current conflict began a dozen years ago, in the aftermath of the genocide that killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda and ended with waves of refugees, including many génocidaires, fleeing into eastern Congo. Rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda soon took control of much of the region, while militia groups and tribal gangs brawled for its mineral wealth under the guise of protecting the people. Today Congo is a broken state, torn apart by foreign invaders and internal looters.

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