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Impressively controlled account of the devastating Congo war, which has caused more than 5 million deaths.
Stearns, who in 2008 led a special UN investigation regarding the region's violence, argues that the war "had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs." While he agrees that the 1994 Rwandan genocide provided the war's genesis, he argues that a less-understood factor was the experience of the Banyamulenge, a Tutsi group that emigrated to the Congo long before and suffered persecution ever since. The Congo was first invaded in 1996, when Laurent Kabila deposed Mobutu, but the wider war began in 1998, between disparate coalitions: Kabila's army and Hutu militias on one side, and the Rwandan military and their allies on another. "The war scuttled all plans for long-term reform and prompted quick fixes that only further debilitated the state," writes Stearns. The author illuminates the tangled relationships between Kabila, Rwandan Tutsi leader Paul Kagame and many other players as few journalists have. The book's greatest strength is the eyewitness dialogue; Stearns discusses his encounters with everyone from major military figures to residents of remote villages (he was occasionally suspected of being a CIA spy). He reveals the bravery and suffering of ordinary Africans, while underscoring "how deeply entrenched in society the Congolese crisis had become." As the chronology moves into the previous decade, his tale becomes increasingly complex and disturbing. Regional proxy wars involving rebel offshoots and tribal militia groups spun out of control, intensifying violence against civilians. Kabila was assassinated in 2001, possibly due to grudges held by angry child soldiers backed by Rwanda, and replaced by his son, who pursued a tenuous peace marred by continued economic stagnation and chaos. By that time, the belligerent nations "had over a dozen rebel proxies or allies battling each other."
An important examination of a social disaster that seems both politically complex and cruelly senseless.