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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Congo's elections, set for July 30, have become both the great hope for and the great threat to the country's recovery. A report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group warns of trouble ahead, since many former belligerents "stand to lose power in the elections and are set on prolonging or disrupting the transition." The elections will be the Congolese people's first chance to choose their leaders in more than four decades. But just holding the vote will pose a logistical nightmare. It can take four or five days to travel 50 miles by road. The country's main artery remains the snaking Congo River, which is full of treacherous sandbars and shifting currents. The country "hasn't had a census since 1984. There are no ID cards in memory. We will need at least 40,000 to 50,000 polling stations," says William Lacy Swing, veteran U.S. ambassador in Africa and head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Congo. He says the poll will cost $422 million. "Elections should be a time of national unity and reconciliation. But if it is not handled correctly, it can be a moment of great division."

Even if the election does run smoothly, Congo's worst problems will surely persist. The country is less a functioning nation-state than a patchwork of disjointed cantons. While the war's messy front line no longer exists, trade between the east and the west is almost nonexistent. "It's as if we are still two countries," says Dr. Pascal Ngoy, a health coordinator for the IRC. That division is felt most keenly in the provinces and is made worse by the long-standing perception that the capital doesn't care about the country's farthest reaches. The local administration in Bunia, for instance, says it sent about $1 million in taxes to Kinshasa in the first half of 2005. It got back just $5,000.

Can Congo be saved? Maybe, but it can't save itself. If the country has any hope of escaping the cycle of violence, misrule and despair, it will need the largesse and mercy of governments and citizens all over the globe. "Even in five years, it will be lucky if we have isolated pockets of real progress," says a Western official in Kinshasa, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch says, "The focus is on bringing this country to elections, but there's almost no interest in the impunity and human-rights abuses that continue today. The truth is, Congo isn't magically going to become a democracy. It's going to take years of hard work and money."

Is the world willing to see it through? The shame of indifference should be reason enough for action. But without more money from the developed world to help rebuild, without more troops to secure the peace and protect innocent civilians, without a genuine effort by Congo's leaders to work for the country rather than just their part of it and without Congo's neighbors ending their meddlesome ways, Africa's broken heart is unlikely to heal. In 10 years' time, you may be reading another story much like this one. The only difference will be that millions more people will have died.

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