The Deadliest War In The World

Simmering conflict in Congo has killed 4 million people since 1998, yet few choose to cover the story. TIME looks at a forgotten nation--and what's needed to prevent the deaths of millions more

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But things got worse. In 1998, after Kabila got too friendly with the Interahamwe, Uganda and Rwanda invaded Congo again, triggering what became known as Africa's first world war. The scramble for power and resources dragged in forces from at least eight African neighbors, spawned a myriad of Congolese factions and set off campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Kabila, as nasty and corrupt as his predecessor, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards in 2001. His son Joseph, 29, assumed power. One year later, after some arm twisting by continental power South Africa (whose leaders recognize the crucial role Congo could play in their plan for an African rebirth), the young leader and most of the rebel groups and foreign forces in the country signed a peace deal. A national army was formed, aimed at integrating soldiers who had previously been trying to kill one another. And the Congolese people, who maintain a sense of spirit and beauty despite the horrors around them, dared to hope for a better country.

In the three years since then, some things in Congo have improved. Mining firms have returned, and cell-phone companies--particularly welcome in a country that has just a few thousand fixed lines serving more than 60 million people--are doing a booming business. But in some parts of the country, the fighting has never really stopped. The U.N.'s peacekeeping force has got tougher in the past year, chasing rebels and apprehending or even killing them, but the force lacks the numbers to impose complete order. Congolese troops who are supposed to be helping the U.N. peacekeepers have proved ineffective and corrupt and have been hampered by slow and often nonexistent wages. The European Union is working on ensuring that salaries and rations get to Congo's soldiers, and there has been some improvement. But corruption is still a big problem. A Western official in Kinshasa, Congo's capital, estimates that at least $3.2 million of the $8 million a month budgeted for Congo's military is stolen.

Frustrated and often hungry, Congolese units have taken to looting and pillaging the people they are meant to protect. In early May, Congolese troops in Ituri in the northeast forced at least 4,500 refugees out of a camp because they suspected militia fighters were sheltering there. Some Congolese units have split back into their rebel and ethnic parts and turned on one another. The upsurge in rapes, killings and torture by Congo's security forces has become so serious that the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo is debating whether to end its cooperation with the police and army altogether.

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