News from the Ituri region of the misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo in recent weeks has been so grim as to make one want to turn the page or flip the TV channel in despair: tens of thousands of refugees in flight, ethnically based mass murder, killers jubilantly draping themselves in the entrails of their victims, animals eating dead bodies in the streets, 10- and 11-year-old child soldiers bearing AK-47s and hand grenades. Such horrors are but the latest in a civil war whose death toll, in less than five years, is estimated by the International Rescue Committee to be at least 3.3 million. This is the greatest such bloodshed anywhere on earth since the end of World War II. There is no end in sight.

The conflict’s origins are many. A hundred years ago, under King Leopold II of Belgium, Congo was the scene of one of the most brutal chapters in the European colonization of Africa. The king’s private colony–and to a lesser extent the early Belgian Congo that succeeded it–was based on a draconian system of forced labor that over a forty-year period slashed the territory’s population roughly in half, an estimated drop of about 10 million people. But colonialism can’t be blamed for everything. The formation of a modern nation-state is a slow, complicated business, which in most of Western Europe was accompanied by much war and violence and took several centuries. To survive in the modern world, Africa doesn’t have those centuries to spend.

One trigger for Congo’s current war came in 1994, when the world did nothing to stop the Rwanda genocide. When the Hutu regime that carried out those killings was overthrown, its leaders and roughly a million other Hutu fled next door to Congo. Angry at continuing attacks mounted from there, the army of the new government in Rwanda occupied part of northeastern Congo.

Seeing the huge, mineral-rich country’s sclerotic, corrupt, US-backed Mobutu regime collapse in 1997, nearby African nations quickly joined in dividing the spoils. At various points the armies of seven of them have had troops on Congo’s soil. They have formed an ever-changing web of alliances with local warlords and militias, and with the many foreign corporations–American, South African, European–eager to buy Congo’s diamonds, gold, timber, copper, cobalt and columbium-tantalum, or coltan. Coltan, which at times has rivaled gold in price per ounce, is used in chips in cell phones and computers; eastern Congo has more than half the world’s supply.

This vast wealth in the ground and the lack of a functioning central government have been a catastrophic combination. When there is no money in the public treasury, armies become self-financing networks of miners and smugglers. When there are few schools, they can easily recruit children. When there are few jobs, control of precious minerals becomes the source of all money.

So, what is to be done? Peace won’t come easily to Congo, but three things would help:

(1) The current expansion of the minuscule and hamstrung United Nations peacekeeping force now in the country is a step in the right direction, although tragically belated and inadequate. There is an opportunity here for the UN to at last prove that it can be a power for peace in Africa, after shamefully caving in–under US and British pressure–and allowing the Rwanda genocide to happen. Enough troops to provide security for all of Congo, which is as big as the United States east of the Mississippi but has no working road or rail network, is too much to hope for. But a UN force at least several times the size of the 10,800-soldier contingent that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has proposed could begin to halt the terrible bloodshed in the northeastern corner of the country, where the most carnage has taken place. Its length of service should be seen as a matter of years, and its mission should be drastically toughened to include, for instance, disarming the rival militias–for which there is no mandate now.

The European Union and Canada and various other countries are contributing small numbers of troops. The United States is not, although it voted in the Security Council for the expansion of the UN presence. Besides its small size, however, two things threaten to sap the effectiveness of that force. One is that it is led by France, and Bush is still enraged over French opposition to his conquest of Iraq. The other problem is that Congo’s immense bloodletting does not threaten to spill over into the United States and Europe, nor does it threaten to cut off the export of strategic minerals. In such circumstances, will the leaders of countries contributing troops be willing to tolerate having their soldiers killed and wounded? The real test of the UN as a peacekeeping power is in a situation like this, where there is not yet a peace to keep.

(2) Anarchic civil wars like those in Congo are fueled by lucrative minerals. Recognizing how diamonds have helped drive the conflicts in Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone, more than fifty nations recently agreed to cease trading in “conflict diamonds.” Remarkably, given its scorn for most international agreements, the United States is a signer. It remains to be seen how much the agreement will be followed. But a recent World Bank study suggests that if conflict diamonds can be outlawed, why not conflict gold and conflict coltan? If stringently enforced, such pacts could begin to slash the funding for the warlords who have ravaged so much of Congo.

(3) Finally, we must stop arming Africa. The United States and France, the two leading neocolonial powers on the continent, have been the worst offenders here. During the 1990s alone, the United States gave more than $200 million worth of equipment and military training to African armies, including six of the seven that have had troops involved in Congo’s civil war. This is the modern version of what happened hundreds of years ago, when American and European ship captains used muskets and ammunition as one of the currencies for purchasing slaves from African dealers. This senseless, destructive flow of arms into the continent fueled a brutal commerce in human beings then, and it fuels a brutal commerce in conflict minerals today. It’s time to call a halt.