Father René de Haes wasn't looking for trouble. He had been working peacefully in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for many of his 71 years when, on May 7, he ran into it: trouble with a capital T. Driving home to the international Jesuit study center in Kimwenza, some 30 kilometers from the capital, Kinshasa, he came across some men in military uniform who were looting a warehouse. After a brief altercation in which the priest apparently resisted the thieves' demands, gunshots rang out. De Haes was shot five times; an hour later, he died in hospital.

And so, one more death was added to the toll in the DRC, where even priests aren't immune to the fallout of a brutal and debilitating war. De Haes's murder made few headlines, even inside the DRC. The Congolese have seen it all before: priests, United Nations peacekeepers, public officials killed in cold blood. According to the International Rescue Committee's recent study of the war's toll, "the Congolese conflict is by far the deadliest war in the world since World War II and the deadliest in Africa ever recorded."

To put the Congo war's enormity into perspective, consider that an estimated 3.5 million people have died there since 1998, compared to 1,540,665, the estimated total number of Americans killed in all wars since the Revolution. Although carnage in other African nations such as Rwanda and Sudan has horrified the world, the death toll in these humanitarian disaster areas pales by comparison to DRC. While such figures for Africa's conflict zones are difficult to confirm, recent worse-case estimates on mortality in Sudan's Darfur conflict approach 400,000. In Rwanda, 1994's 100-day genocidal campaign by Hutus to wipe out Tutsis and moderate Hutus claimed an estimated 937,000 victims.

The overall picture in the DRC is almost unimaginably bleak: According to the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 30,000 people continue to die every month from the after-effects of war (mostly from diseases that have flourished in the conflict's wake), where 38 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition, where children as young as 7 have been recruited into rebel militia. An estimated 3.4 million have been forced to flee their homes.

A scarred country trying to get back on its feet, the DRC has almost countless needs. After years of war, it's now at a critical juncture in its history. The first democratic elections in 44 years are on the horizon (originally planned for June 2005, they've been postponed because the electoral system is not yet in place). With a stable government, the DRC could attract foreign aid from countries that are too squeamish to put their faith in the current transitional government. But this is a chicken-and-egg problem: without the faith and support of the international community now, the DRC might not become stable enough to attract any aid in the future.

What could the world community have done to prevent this human catastrophe? The prevailing wisdom in the international community, as reflected in the United Nations, is that humanitarian intervention and peace-brokering are better approaches to conflict than military intervention. Force is viewed as the last resort--hence the Security Council dispute over the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Still, the United Nations has not been blind to DRC's suffering. U.N. troops have been on the scene since 1999, when MONUC, the U.N. mission to Congo, was set up to monitor a cease-fire in the ongoing civil war. But while MONUC could protect U.N. facilities and personnel, it had no mandate to stop the conflict.

Within Africa, there has been longstanding ambivalence about Western powers intervening in the continent's conflicts. On one hand, African leaders denounced the United States failure to spearhead action against the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. On the other hand, most of DRC's neighbors have insisted that African nations should take the lead in solving regional problems. National interests and the desire to reap the bounty of DRC's natural resources play a significant role in the hands-off message to the West.

Could the United States effectively intervene in DRC? Some observers argue that Washington could use its enormous economic and political clout, threatening to withhold foreign aid to DRC's neighbors unless they stop meddling and stirring up the violence. In an atmosphere of relative stability, the international community could begin to help reconstructing the country's failed social, political, and economic institutions.

Speaking to the French foreign press association in May 2003, DRC's human-rights minister, Ntumba Luaba, declared that the United States has a moral obligation to become directly involved. He described Washington's influence in the region, especially on neighboring countries Uganda and Rwanda, as so great that "the United States could resolve the situation in Congo in a matter of days.... If the United States feels motivated to intervene in other parts of the world to save human lives, one can well ask why it has remained indifferent to the fate of 4 million people in Congo. The United States has all the information and justification it needs to exert pressure on Rwanda and Uganda to stop their intervention."

Luaba went on to chide the U.S. and France for allowing DRC to languish while Washington and Paris continued to argue over the Iraq invasion, concluding that "we should be victims of the tensions that exist between super and medium powers on the international stage."

Supporting the DRC is important for moral and ethical reasons, but there are good political and economic reasons too. Located in the heart of central Africa, the DRC is strategically critical to the continent. And it is a treasure trove of natural resources the world covets. Roughly the size of Western Europe, the country is endowed with 50 percent of Africa's forests, and a mighty river system that, if harnessed, could provide hydro-electric power across Africa. The DRC's mineral wealth is astounding: copper, gold, diamonds, and coltan (an essential component of capacitors that control current flow in cell phone circuit boards). If properly governed, the DRC could be an economic engine for the continent.