The following editorial was written by columnist Nicholas Kristof and published in the New York Times opinion section on June 18, 2007.
A HILLTOP IN EASTERN CONGO
One hint that this would be an unusual interview came when the warlord walked in wearing a button reading “Rebels For Christ.”
Then when I reached to sip the café au lait that the guerrilla leaders offered me in their jungle redoubt, they looked reproachful and quickly bowed their heads and said grace.
I’m taking a student and a teacher along on a reporting trip to Africa, and we wanted to look at how civil wars tear countries apart and block the continent’s economic development. So we rented a jeep and drove past the last checkpoints outside the city of Goma, and then jounced along a tortuous dirt road into the hills.
We traveled through gorgeous green hills and forests, thatch-roof villages and mist-shrouded canyons. Government is only a rumor here, for the capital is 1,200 miles away and has no control in the east and offers no services. There is no postal service, no national health or education system, no authority to rein in the ultimate boss in the third world: a man with a gun.
Along the way to see the warlord, we stopped at an elementary school. It is financed by the parents, who pay $9 per year per child to the eight teachers who instruct 520 students. Many parents cannot afford that sum, so they keep their children at home.
The school building hadn’t been kept up since the Belgians ruled Congo in the years before 1960. The Belgians were brutal colonial masters in Congo, but after enduring subsequent rounds of kleptocratic incompetence and civil war, some Congolese feel nostalgic for the lesser tyranny of colonialism.
Finally we were stopped by a band of soldiers who searched us carefully and then led us past more guards with AK-47s and grenade launchers to the sanctum of Laurent Nkunda, the chieftain of a swath of war-torn eastern Congo.
Mr. Nkunda, 40, is a smart and charismatic man with a university education who treated us to several hours of lively conversation in his fluent English, followed by a tasty chicken dinner. He described himself as a devout Pentecostal and said that most of his troops had converted as well; he showed us a church where he said they pray daily, and he showed photos of baptisms of the soldiers.
Then again, the government has issued an international arrest warrant against him for war crimes, and human rights monitors like Refugees International say that his troops have killed and raped civilians and pillaged their villages. He denies the charges.
“I’m not a warlord ... I’m a liberator of the people,” he said.
That’s the problem: So are they all.
More than four million people have died in Congo’s wars since 1998, making it the most lethal conflict since World War II.
Probably no slaughter has gotten fewer column inches — or fewer television minutes — per million deaths. So even after all that suffering, Congo still hasn’t risen to a prominent place on the international agenda.
That’s why I came here with Leana Wen and Will Okun, the student and teacher from my win-a-trip contest. (Video and photos of the trip and blogs by Will and Leana are at nytimes.com/twofortheroad.)
The U.N. did hold elections last year, and much of Congo is indeed more stable today. But here in this region of eastern Congo, a wretched situation is getting even worse.
Since January about 150,000 people have been driven from their homes by renewed violence, and there are widespread fears that a larger war is looming.
“We see war coming,” Mr. Nkunda said, and he pulled out his laptop to show a map indicating that various government-backed forces are being dispatched to attack him. He added: “The only reply to war and ammunition is war and ammunition.”
I told him — a bit nervously — that such tribalism and fighting has torn apart a country that should be one of Africa’s richest. But Mr. Nkunda, who quotes Gandhi, emphasized that what counts here is simply force. “You go by strength,” he said.
There are no easy solutions here, although some steps are essential: supporting professional training and reform of the Congolese security forces, pressuring neighboring Rwanda to support central authority over the full country, bolstering the peace process, and interdicting mineral exports that finance rebel armies. But the most important step is simply for the international community to acknowledge that a war that costs four million lives must be an international priority, even if the victims aren’t staring at us from television screens.