NO CONFLICT since the 1940s has been bloodier, yet few have been more completely ignored. Estimates of the death toll in Congo between 1998 and 2003 range from roughly 1m to more than 5m—no one counted the corpses. Taking the midpoint, the cost in lives was higher than that in Syria, Iraq, Vietnam or Korea.
Yet scarcely any outsider has a clue what the fighting was about or who was killing whom. Which is a tragedy, because the great war at the heart of Africa might be about to start again.
To understand the original war, consider this outrageously oversimplified analogy. Imagine a giant house whose timbers are rotten. That was the Congolese state under Mobutu Sese Seko, the kleptocratic tyrant who ruled from 1965 to 1997. Next, imagine a cannonball that brings the house crashing down. That cannonball was fired from Rwanda, Congo’s tiny, turbulent neighbour.
Now imagine that every local gang of armed criminals comes rushing in to steal the family jewels, and the looting turns violent. Finally, imagine that you are a young, unarmed woman who lives alone in the shattered house. It is not a pleasant thought, is it?
Mobutu and his underlings looted the Congolese state until it could barely stand. When a shock struck, it collapsed. The shock was the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The perpetrators of that abomination, defeated at home, fled into Congo. Rwanda invaded Congo to eliminate them.
Meeting almost no resistance, since no one wanted to die for Mobutu, the highly disciplined Rwandans overthrew him and replaced him with their local ally, Laurent Kabila. Then Kabila switched sides and armed the génocidaires, so Rwanda tried to overthrow him, too. Angola and Zimbabwe saved him.
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