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On November 4, the day Americans chose the son of a Kenyan economist to be their president, the eastern Congolese town of Kiwanja was assaulted by a band of several hundred militiamen, who were festooned with leaves and armed with rifles, spears and machetes. Technically, the fighters--some of them children--were acting in tenuous alliance with the faraway central government; their enemies were soldiers loyal to a rebel leader named Gen. Laurent Nkunda, who had occupied Kiwanja a few days before. But the battle was really more like a skirmish between rival gangs, and as is so often the case in these sorts of clashes, it was the defenseless who suffered the most. Nkunda's men repelled the attack and then turned their fury on Kiwanja's civilian population, going from house to house, rooting out the men and boys, accusing them of complicity with the progovernment forces and executing them on the spot. According to Human Rights Watch, which compiled an extensive report on the killings, townspeople later recovered around 150 bodies, some of which had been stuffed into pit latrines by the rebels. The entire time, a detachment of United Nations peacekeepers sat less than a mile away, oblivious to the slaughter.
The massacre at Kiwanja occurred amid a large-scale offensive by Nkunda's rebel army, a burst of conflict that briefly thrust the benighted mess that is the Democratic Republic of Congo back onto the world's front pages. The general reaction, even among informed observers, was a weary question: Isn't this supposed to be over? It has been six years since the signing of a peace agreement officially ended the war in Congo, a war that at its height was a fierce struggle involving the armies of eight African nations and innumerable rebel groups. Two years ago, the country validated the rule of President Joseph Kabila, a former combatant, in a reasonably competitive and well-monitored election. And yet significant portions of the population languish in conditions of static crisis. "There were two Congos," Gérard Prunier writes near the conclusion of his new history, Africa's World War. The "former government territory, which grumbled and complained but lived roughly in peace, and the former war zone, which wondered at times if the war had really ended."
It's actually more complicated than that. Within the field of battle Prunier describes--the eastern rim of a country roughly the size of the continental United States west of the Rockies--there were many nameless little wars, which often had little to do with one another or with the larger national and geopolitical stakes. The conflict created dozens of nebulous microstates ruled by local strongmen who profess allegiance to some higher power or another, but who in practice rule their domains in an almost feudal fashion. The title of Prunier's book invokes the two great conflagrations of the twentieth century, but in the book itself Prunier argues for a more distant analogy to explain the bloodshed in Congo: the Thirty Years' War, which wracked Europe from 1618 to 1648. Both were fitful conflicts fought by a shifting cast of combatants who met on the neutral ground of a failing state--the sclerotic Holy Roman Empire in one instance; the rotten kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko in the other--and waged devastating campaigns of plunder. In both cases, the civilian casualties were appalling. (It has been said that some parts of modern-day Germany saw their populations reduced by one-third during the Thirty Years' War.) And each war, Prunier argues, represented "a transforming moment in the history of the continent." What Congo has been transformed into, however, and what its recent history portends for Africa's future, are questions of intense debate.
Africa's World War proffers an answer, and it arrives with an aura of definitiveness. Prunier would seem to be an ideal chronicler for this liminal struggle. A profession-straddler, part journalist and part scholar, he has written a book designed to appeal to readers of magazines and monographs alike. Though wrapped in glowing jacket endorsements from several eminent professors, it is free of the ritualized fustiness of academic writing. War correspondents also love Prunier's work: Howard French, who covered Congo during the 1990s for the New York Times, recently placed Africa's World War on a list of books he thought President Obama should be reading. But unlike most journalists, Prunier was thinking about this part of the world back when it was still at peace. After serving in the French army in the late 1960s, he spent two years teaching in Idi Amin's Uganda, and he broadened and deepened his knowledge during a long period of travel around the African continent. He returned to France to earn a PhD in African history, in 1981. In the book that made his reputation, The Rwanda Crisis, he brought a perspective informed by decades of intellectual engagement to the moral incomprehensibility of the 1994 genocide. Published in 1995, when the world's bewilderment was still fresh, the book met with an enthusiastic critical reception--David Rieff lauded it as "magisterial"; Christopher Hitchens called it "beyond praise"--and many experts consider it the most useful volume in what is now a very crowded library of Rwanda books. Prunier's latest work, like the Congo war, is a sequel of sorts. And as in the Thirty Years' War, a religious conflict that evolved into a clash of emergent national interests, the story does not end as it began. The fighting in Congo started--or at least it seemed to start--as a very modern crusade, a righteous campaign against perpetrators of genocide. Five million deaths later, it's clearly about something else.
A note of caution about the previous sentence: beware of large numbers in Africa. The much-cited figure of 5 million dead comes from a longitudinal study conducted by the International Rescue Committee, which relies on household surveys and sampling methods in a country where there are few roads, hospitals or reliable records. In keeping with a change in the way the world understands war casualties, the study's mortality figure encompasses "excess" deaths in Congo due to a wide variety of causes, such as malnutrition and diseases that would have otherwise been preventable. Even during the worst periods of fighting, the study says, violence accounted for less than 10 percent of the conflict's death toll. Any way you look at the situation, it's horrific. But the scale of Congo's killing does not compare to, say, what occurred during the years of war in Vietnam, where an estimated 3.8 million Vietnamese died from violent causes alone, according to a study published by the British medical journal BMJ that employed similar survey methodology.