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.

The country's mineral wealth is, of course, also the cause of many of its problems. In the past decade, neighbors Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe have all sent armies into the DRC, lured by the prospect of diamonds, copper, and gold.

Uganda's presence has been especially divisive in the northeastern province of Ituri, where it has spread arms liberally among rival ethnic Hema and Lendu groups, enabling them to slaughter each other with a brutality reminiscent of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. "The war is, by and large, a story of groups from the outside coming in and creating chaos," says Peter Rosenblum, who documented human-rights abuses in the country in the 1980s and now teaches law at Columbia University. But in Ituri, he adds, "the outside forces have succeeded in making the conflict local."

Of the outside forces, Rwanda has been the most belligerent in recent years. After the genocide in Rwanda, thousands of Hutus who had murdered their countrymen fled across the border to the DRC. In 1996 and 1997, Rwanda invaded the DRC, arguing that its Rwanda's security was threatened by the presence of these Hutus. But the United Nations has cast doubt on Rwandan president Paul Kagame's motives, and others are skeptical too. "It seems Kagame needs [the Hutus] there to keep his country under control," says Bushoki Batabiha, a Congolese civil-society activist who is currently a fellow at the International Peace Academy in New York. "They're a good scapegoat that allow him not to deal with poverty, land claims, and other issues in Rwanda."

Perhaps these conflicts wouldn't be so violent if the country wasn't steeped in a history of bloodshed. This dates back to the late 19th century, when King Leopold of Belgium, seduced by the region's rubber, ivory, and gold, waged a brutal campaign to win the territory. His "Congo Free State," created in 1885, was one of the most repressive regimes in history. Natives who didn't harvest enough rubber or ivory were either killed or had their hands cut off; a local army, trained by Belgians, was given license to loot, rape, and terrorize civilians. It is estimated that up to 10 million Congolese lost their lives during Leopold's rule. The era left an indelible imprint of violence on the country.

In 1960, independence brought with it a brief flare of hope under populist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, only to be extinguished when Lumumba was assassinated in 1961. In 1965, the United States helped install Joseph Mobutu, a Washington favorite who was scarcely better than his colonial predecessors. Under Mobutu, citizens were not allowed to wear ties or use first names. The president was reborn as Mobutu Sese Seko, and people who didn't wear a representation of his face on their body on Mondays lost their jobs. The country itself was renamed Zaire, and its people invented another word-kleptocracy-to describe their government's rapacious ways.

During Mobutu's regime, the Catholic Church played an important role in supporting a growing civil-society movement. "It required an act of faith to believe that democratic change could come, and church groups tried to create a space where people could be honest about what was happening in the country," says Rosenblum. One of the groups that received support from the Catholic Church during that time, La Voix des Sans Voix (Voice of the Voiceless), has become an influential human-rights organization; other groups are still active too. "There were Catholic nuns who became galvanized activists for democracy," says Rosenblum. Toward the end of the Mobutu era, there was considerable pressure from the international community, including from the Catholic Church, for Mobutu to open up the country to democracy. Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, then leader of the Zaire Conference of Bishops, headed a national conference on the nation's future in 1991-92 But Rosenblum is quick to point out that "the Catholic church is certainly not angelic in the Congo"-for example, in Ituri, Catholic bishops have stoked conflict by supporting the Hema against the Lendu.

The desire for democracy grew steadily during Mobutu's 30-year rule, and in 1997, Rwanda-backed rebels captured Kinshasa and installed Laurent Desire Kabila as president. Kabila promptly split with his former Rwandan allies, sparking a new round of war in which the DRC government was backed by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe against Rwanda and Uganda. In 2001, Kabila himself was assassinated under mysterious circumstances and replaced by his 29-year-old son Joseph, who quickly went on an international tour to secure support for his country.

Since then, the DRC's trajectory has been erratic. In 2003, a peace agreement was struck in which former rebels were brought in to a transitional, power-sharing government. But in June 2004, conflict flared up when the border town of Bukavu was captured by a former Rwandan rebel leader, General Laurent Nkudu. And ethnic tensions continue to boil in Ituri, where the U. N. mission in the DRC (known by its French acronym, MONUC) is struggling to pressure armed groups to demobilize.

It's in this context that elections will play out, probably in the first half of 2006. In current polls, President Joseph Kabila is running neck and neck with Etienne Tshisekedi, whose reputation rests on the spirited opposition movement he created in the Mobutu era. Tshisekedi has broad popular support, but most DRC analysts think that he lacks the stature of a transformative leader. "Had he been Nelson Mandela, all of this could have been solved a long time ago," says Rosenblum. Batabiha agrees, saying that while Tshisekedi should be given a chance, "I don't see a big change coming from him."

The Catholic church in the DRC is likely to play a role in monitoring the election, when it happens. The head of the electoral commission is a Catholic priest, Abbe Malu Malu, and people in the church are already being trained as election monitors.

Batabiha and Rosenblum agree that elections alone won't solve the country's problems. "Whenever Congolese talk about the future, they talk about justice," says Rosenblum. "There's a deep sense within the country that those who have perpetrated the violence have impunity, which needs to be addressed." How that will happen is a subject of contention. The process for some kind of truth commission has been started but, says Rosenblum, is deeply flawed. "A problem like Ituri needs to be approached on multiple levels. You need soldiers on the streets, a ceasefire by force, and a way of dealing with justice issues, with mechanisms to put [justice] into place."

If there's any hope for a large-scale transformation, it probably comes from two non-government sources: civil society groups and the media. A free press, started in the waning years of the Mobutu regime, has gathered steam and is now an unstoppable force in the country. Batabiha points out that in 2004, eight cabinet ministers were dismissed when the press wrote passionately about their corruption. "The power of the press is at work in the Congo," he says.

But if the DRC is to succeed-if nationalism is to triumph over ethnic anger, and casual murders to be viewed once again with horror-it might need help from a higher power. "Western countries' development is based on a respect for human rights and a belief in the value of human beings-the Bible is the source for a lot of that," says Batabiha. "In the DRC, we need a leadership that believes in God."
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