Where does such cruelty come from? Four problems, above all, drive Congo's unrelenting bloodshed. One is long-standing antagonism between certain ethnic groups. A second is the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the two million or so people who flowed across Congo's porous border in its aftermath: Hutu killers, innocent Hutu who feared retribution, and a mainly Tutsi army in pursuit, bent on vengeance. The third is a vast wealth in natural resources—gold, tungsten, diamonds, coltan (a key ingredient of computer chips), copper, and more—that gives ethnic warlords and their backers, especially Rwanda and Uganda, an additional incentive to fight. And, finally, this is the largest nation on earth—more than 65 million people in an area roughly as big as the United States east of the Mississippi—that has hardly any functioning national government. After Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001, his son Joseph took power in Kinshasa, and won an election in 2006, but his corrupt and disorganized regime provides few services, especially in the more distant parts of the country, such as Goma, which is more than one thousand miles east of the capital.
Evidence of the nation's riches is everywhere. Battered Soviet-era Antonov cargo planes continually descend into Goma airport filled with tin ore from a big mine at Walikale, in the interior, now controlled by Congolese army officers. On a country road, a truckload of timber, stacked high, passes by, heading out of the rain forest toward the Ugandan border. And then one day in Goma, while I am walking with Anneke, Ida, and another foreigner, a man approaches and asks: Would we like to buy some uranium?
After two weeks my notebooks overflow with such [horrifying] stories [of rape and cruelty]. But looking at people I meet, even an entire encampment of young gold miners who are almost all ex-combatants, do I see those who look capable of killing hospital patients in their beds, gang-raping a woman like Rebecca Kamate, jabbing a young man's eye with a bayonet? I do not. People are warm, friendly, their faces overflow with smiles; seeing a foreigner, everyone wants to stop, say " Bonjour!" and shake hands, whether on a small town's main street or on a forest path. I've never seen more enthusiastic hand-shakers. At night, when the electricity works, the warm air echoes with some of Africa's best music. There is no shortage of ordinary acts of human kindness. When our car's left front wheel goes sailing off to the side of a remote mountain road, leaving one end of the axle to gouge a long furrow in the dirt, the driver of a passing truck, piled teeteringly high with goods and then with people sitting on top, immediately stops and crawls under the car, using his jack in tandem with ours to solve the problem and get us on our way.
What turns such people into rapists, sadists, killers? Greed, fear, demagogic leaders and their claim that such violence is necessary for self-defense, seeing everyone around you doing the same thing—and the fact that the rest of the world pays tragically little attention to one of the great humanitarian catastrophes of our time. But even the worst brutality can also draw out the good in people, as in the way Kamate has devoted her life to other raped women. In Goma, I saw people with pickaxes laboriously hewing the lava that had flooded their city into football-sized chunks with flattened sides, then using these, with mortar, to build the walls of new homes. Can this devastated country as a whole use the very experience of its suffering to build something new and durable? I hope so, but I fear it will be a long time in coming.