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Yet Congo's troubles rarely make daily news headlines, and the country is often low on international donors' lists of places to help. After Sudan, Congo is the second largest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, a land so vast and ungovernable that it has long been perceived as the continent's ultimate hellhole, the setting for Joseph Conrad's 1899 book Heart of Darkness. It is in part because of that malign reputation--and because the nation's feckless rulers have consistently reinforced it--that the world has been willing to let Congo bleed. Since 2000, the U.N. has spent billions on its peacekeeping mission in Congo, which is known by its French acronym, MONUC, and it is at the moment the largest U.N. force anywhere in the world. But troops number just 17,500, a tiny presence in such a large country. In February the U.N. and aid groups working in Congo asked for $682 million in humanitarian funds. So far, they have received just $94 million--or $9.40 for every person in need. By comparison, the aid group Oxfam estimates that the U.N.'s tsunami appeal last year raised $550 for each person.
There are various explanations for the neglect. Perhaps the global reservoir of wealth and goodwill runs only so deep. Perhaps the attention and outrage directed toward another African tragedy, the genocide in Darfur, have left the world too exhausted to take on Congo's. But a choice like that comes with a cost. Congo represents the promise of Africa as much as its misery: its fertile fields and tropical forests cover an area bigger than California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Texas combined. Its soils are packed with diamonds, gold, copper, tantalum (known locally as coltan and used in electronic devices such as cell phones and laptop computers) and uranium. The waters of its mighty river could one day power the continent. Yet because Congo is so rich in resources, its problems, when left to fester, tend to suck its neighbors into a vortex of exploitation and chaos. And so fixing Congo is essential to fixing Africa. Says Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch: "If you want peace in Africa, then you need to deal with the biggest country right at its heart."
That task is enormous. Over the past year, TIME reporters who visited the worst-hit areas in the east of the country found much of it in ruins. Roads and railway lines have washed away or simply disappeared into the jungle. Hospitals and health clinics have been destroyed. Electricity, for those lucky enough to receive it, is patchy. Refugees fleeing fighting between government troops and rebels talk of beheadings, rapes, massacres and torched villages. Their stories, coming eight years after the start of fighting in Congo, sound eerily similar to the reports of atrocities committed in Darfur. In that sense they are powerful admonishments to those who believe the West's responsibilities in Darfur may have been lifted with the signing of a peace agreement in early May: Congo's warring parties too say they are abiding by a peace deal, monitored by U.N. troops. But the dying continues. Congo provides tragic proof that in some places peace and war can look a lot alike.