Mother and child in eastern DR Congo
Mother and child in eastern DR Congo Flickr/Creative Common

Many people think that World War III has never occurred – but they would be wrong.

A third 'World War' did indeed occur and it killed at least 5 million people (mostly from disease and starvation) – some estimated place the death toll much higher.

However, due to the location of this huge conflict and (perhaps) the identity of the victims, the war was under-reported and almost unknown by those who were not directly affected by it.

Between 1998 and 2003, an extremely complex and chaotic civil war engulfed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) -- a vast, thickly-jungled nation in Central Africa the size of Western Europe -- and spilled over into neighboring countries, including Rwanda, Angola, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

While the estimated 5-million death toll from this war pales in comparison to the 15-million lives lost during World War I, and the 60-million who perished in the Second World War -- the DR Congo inferno was nonetheless was one of the ten deadliest wars in recorded history.

Moreover, given that the DR Congo war erupted in such incredible violence during the turn of the 21st-century (amidst the global internet communication phenomenon), its relative obscurity is puzzling, to say the least.

The war's origins can be traced to the rebel movement of Laurent-Desire Kabila against the country's long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who finally fled into exile and died in 1997. (Prior to Mobutu’s exit, DR Congo was known as Zaire).

However, Kabila's term in power was brief -- he faced significant opposition within DR Congo itself and was assassinated in early 2001, leading to his son Joseph as his successor. Joseph, who recently won a widely-disputed presidential election, has been in power ever since.

Another important catalyst for the war had to do with the ethnic civil war that erupted in neighboring Rwanda in 1994 where the Hutu-dominated government sought to exterminate the Tutsi minority. This conflict spilled over into DR Congo and the two nations becomes deeply enmeshed in brutal waves of killings and reprisals.

The major factors that contributed to the war -- internal ethnic conflicts within DR Congo, the battle for precious raw minerals, military conflicts with neighboring countries – were never really resolved and continue the plague the region. (Much like the end of World War I did not resolve any of the differences between Germany and its European rivals).

Indeed, in the aftermath of the war's “official cessation” in 2003, many more people continued to die, from both disease and periodic armed conflicts.

Interestingly, throughout the war, Western nations and Japan generally remained neutral, although they expressed concerns about their various mining interests in DR Congo.

The war also created a vast population of Congolese refugees who fled to some bordering nations, including Zambia to the south.

Refugees did not begin trickling back to DR Congo until 2006, coincident with the country's first (alleged) democratic elections.

Of all the tragedies inflicted by this war, perhaps the most horrific relate to the mass rape of women, particularly in the eastern part of the country. Untold tens of thousands (perhaps many more) females – from children to the elderly – were raped by soldiers, rebels, militias and ordinary citizens on a massive scale.

Amnesty International recorded 40,000 incidences of rape during the conflict, but the actual tally could be much higher.

Another tragic victim of the war was the indigenous natives of DR Congo, the Pygmies.

Reportedly, they were shot down by all sides of the conflict and hunted down like animals – some were even raped and eaten. Human rights activist groups have described the mass murder of pygmies as a kind of genocide.

I suspect there are several reasons why the outside world has commented little (if at all) on the devastating Congolese war. One is that DR Congo is remote and inaccessible, with very little presence in global affairs. Another is that, despite its huge mineral resources, the country has no real geo-strategic importance to the west. Third, of course, is sheer anti-black African racism among much of global media.

The war (and its crippling impact) has only interested a small number of western and Asian human rights organizations and those few scholars with an interest in DR Congo. It is doubtful that the recent ”world war” in central Africa will inspire books, novels, movies and documentaries as other more “important” wars have done.

Thus, at least 5-million have died (and millions more crippled, wounded and their lives ruined) utterly in vain.