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Shame and the Congo

The numbers are in. Our shame can now be quantified. At least 3.3 million people have been killed in the pointless, genocidal warfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the last four and a half years, while most of us were looking elsewhere. Let us remember, and tell our grandchildren. How did we not notice?

The figure, released this week by the impeccably conservative International Rescue Committee, a non-partisan relief agency founded in 1933, is only a tentative estimate. Parts of the war zone are inaccessible to relief workers. The real figure could be closer to 4.7 million.

The rescue committee’s chief executive, George Rupp, a former president of Columbia University, calls the Congolese slaughter “a humanitarian catastrophe of horrid and shocking proportions,” but his words are desperately inadequate to the scope of the atrocity. The war in the Congo is the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. More people have died there in the last four and a half years than in all of Saddam Hussein’s blood-stained misadventures, more than in the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, more than in all the conflicts of the Balkans combined, many times more than in all the half-century of fighting and killing in and around Israel. How did we not notice?

Not all of those dead were killed by weapons, the rescue committee emphasized. Most — perhaps 85% — died of starvation and disease that were a direct result of the warfare, because the chaotic fighting cut off civilians’ access to such food and medical care as would otherwise have been available in those regions. The weapons of war killed only about 15% of the total. That is, only about a half-million people. Too few, perhaps, to notice.

The reasons for this war, if they may be called reasons, are bewilderingly complex. Rwandan troops crossed into the Congo in August 1998, originally in pursuit of Hutu militiamen carrying on the bloody fighting in that country. The Rwandans, joined by troops from Uganda, began a campaign to topple the new Congolese government of Laurent Kabila. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia sent troops to prop up the regime. The mass pile-on quickly turned into a web of tribal killing, then looting and land-grabbing and more killing.

Peace talks in South Africa resulted last week in the signing of a plan for power-sharing under Kabila’s son Joseph, who took over when his father was assassinated in 2001. But the killing has not stopped. Last week, in one of the war’s bloodiest incidents yet, tribal gangs massacred more than 950 civilians in a dozen tiny villages in the province of Ituri — more than all the Israelis killed in two and a half years of the Palestinian intifada.

How could we not notice? In part, our attention has been occupied elsewhere, drawn to conflicts much closer to home and heart. Cynics will argue that this puts too nice a spin on it, that the victims in the Congo were just too poor and too black to attract our notice, and they will be partly right.

Partly, too, we have become numb in the face of Africa’s incomprehensible agonies — the mass killings in Rwanda, Liberia and Sudan, the brutal incompetence and fanaticism in Zimbabwe and Nigeria, and everywhere the terrible march of AIDS. It seems at times as though an entire continent is dying before our eyes. We feel helpless, and so we turn our eyes away.

Realists will argue, as they have argued over the months, that there was nothing we could have done. If people are determined to slaughter one another, they will say, we cannot stop it. We cannot go sending entire divisions of American troops off to remote corners of the world in quixotic efforts to impose our notions of morality on other peoples and cultures.

That argument seems to have made sense a month or two ago, if memory serves. But no longer. This week we saw on our television screens, in live broadcasts from Baghdad, precisely what divisions of American troops can do when somebody in Washington is intent on sending them. They could have done the same thing in the Congo if we had cared enough. But we did not care enough, and at least 3.3 million died. Let us tell our grandchildren.

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