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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.