How do you measure the horror in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Add up all of the American deaths in every single war we've fought in since 1776, including World War II and the Civil War (1,540,665). Now add to that the estimated deaths from the recent tsunami (169,752 confirmed dead, 127,294 missing). Next, add to that the estimated death toll in the conflict in Darfur (400,000). Then, add to that the victims of genocide in Rwanda, one of the most horrific slaughters of the 20th century (937,000).

Add all of the deaths together-and you still have a smaller number than the 3.5 million people who have died in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1998.

According to the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 30,000 Congolese are dying every month from the after-effects of war (mostly from diseases that have flourished in the conflict's wake), an estimated 1,000 people a day. Thirty-eight percent of the population suffers from malnutrition. Children as young as 7 have been recruited into rebel militia. An estimated 3.4 million of the country's 60 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

By the time you finish reading this article, another 10 people will have died in the DRC's chaos. And yet most people in the West are unaware of the magnitude of this crisis, how it happened, or what could be done about it.

The DRC--a central African country almost the size of Western Europe--is strategically critical to the continent. And it is a treasure trove of natural resources the world wants. The country contains 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 riches include copper, gold, diamonds, and coltan (an essential component of capacitors that control current flow in cell phone circuit boards).

The country's natural wealth is also the cause of its blood-soaked history. In the late 19th century, King Leopold of Belgium seized the territory for its vast supplies of rubber, ivory, and gold. Leopold's "Congo Free State," created in 1885, was one of the most repressive regimes in history. It is estimated that up to 10 million Congolese lost their lives during his rule. The era left an indelible imprint of violence on the country.

In 1960, the country gained its independence from Belgium under populist leader Patrice Lumumba, who became its first and only elected head of state. But hope for democracy ended when Lumumba was assassinated in 1961.

The United States was instrumental in putting Joseph Mobutu in power in 1965. The dictator renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko, and the country as Zaire. Its people invented another word-kleptocracy-to describe their ruler's ruthless, thieving ways.

After years of guerrilla warfare against Mobutu's regime, Rwanda-backed rebels captured the capital, Kinshasa, and installed their leader, Laurent Desire Kabila, as president of the again-renamed Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997. Kabila promptly split with his former Rwandan supporters, sparking a fresh round of war in which the new DRC government was backed by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe against Rwanda and Uganda. In 2001, Kabila was assassinated and his 29-year-old son Joseph was put in charge. Throughout the past eight years, neighbors Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe have all sent armies into the DRC in a grab for power and natural resources.

Uganda's presence has been especially destructive in the northeastern province of Ituri, where it has armed 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 aggressive 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, claiming that the Hutus inside the DRC threatened Rwanda's security. 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."

In 2003, Joseph Kabila struck a peace agreement with former rebels, bringing them in to a transitional, power-sharing government. But in June 2004, conflict flared up again when the border town of Bukavu was captured by a former Rwandan rebel leader, Gen. Laurent Nkudu. And ethnic tensions continue to boil in Ituri province, where the U. N. mission in the DRC (known by its French acronym, MONUC) is struggling to pressure armed groups to demobilize. For ordinary Congolese caught in the crossfire of warring militias and marauding thugs, without the kind of safety net that would come from a stable state, daily life has continued to be a chaotic struggle against violence and disease.

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. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations have taken that stance toward the DRC's conflict.

Still, the United Nations has not been blind to the DRC's suffering. U.N. troops have been on the scene since 1999, when MONUC was set up as a monitoring body to oversee a cease-fire in the ongoing civil war. MONUC initially had no mandate to protect civilians victimized by the conflict. But since 2003, the U.N. has strengthened MONUC's role in quelling violence and disarming combatants, according to U.N.'s newly adopted doctrine of "robust peacekeeping." Even as some critics continue to fault the U.N. force for its relative lack of strength and size, others now have condemned aggressive behavior by U.N. troops, including allegations of sexual abuse of Congolese girls.