Over 5.4 million dead. Over 2 million displaced. Congo is home to the deadliest conflict since World War II. While the two Congo wars (1996-1997, 1998-2003) officially ended in 2003, peace remains elusive to this day. The largest and most expensive United Nations peacekeeping mission in the world, with more than 20,000 personnel and an annual budget of US$1.4 billion, has not been able to end the conflict. The Eastern part of the country, in particular, remains beset by instability, as militias continue to wreak havoc on the population.
Meanwhile, the conflict unfolds largely unnoticed by the international media and if given coverage in the press, the analysis tends to be superficial.
The conflict in Congo is notorious for serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, in particular the scourge of sexual violence and the conscription of child soldiers. By 2007, the International Rescue Committee calculated a death toll of approximately 5.4 million people.
The ongoing fighting dilapidates the country’s infrastructure and prevents development, and in 2012, Congo ranked lowest on the United Nations Human Development Index.
The International Rescue Committee reports that since the end of the first war in the Congo in 1998, 5.4 million people have died (more than 8 percent of the Congo’s population of 66 million). Every month, 45,000 more Congolese—half of them children—die from hunger, preventable disease, and other consequences of violence and displacement. Over one million people have fled their homes within Congo as a result of the ongoing conflict. Eastern Congo right now is perhaps the worst place in the world to be a woman. Used as a weapon of war, rape in Congo exists on a scale seen nowhere else in the world. Often successful in its intent to destroy and exterminate, rape as a weapon of war is causing the near total destruction of women, their families, and their communities.
Rebel forces under the command of Laurent Nkunda, known as the National Congress for the Defense of People, or CNDP, have taken control of a swathe of territory in eastern Congo that remains beyond the control of the Congolese government and even the UN peacekeeping force. Nkunda claims to be acting to protect his fellow ethnic Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu militias, and he has received substantial support from neighboring Rwanda, but he has political ambitions of his own in Congo and has threatened to take the fight all the way to the capital, Kinshasa. A peace agreement between the Congolese government, the CNDP, and more than 20 other armed groups effectively collapsed late in 2008.
The current crisis in eastern Congo illustrates the historical patterns at the root of this conflict: as long as the Congolese government cannot control its territory, provide basic services or effectively protect its population, and as long as armed groups are able to prosper from illicit trade in natural resources and complex regional alliances, eastern Congo will remain a battlefield and innocent civilians will pay a tragically high cost.