Michael Gerson

GOMA, Congo -- The setting of this city is all contrast and drama -- nestled along a vast, placid lake but dominated by a volcano that steams by day and glows faint and red on a clear evening. A city living in the shadow of sudden violence.

Driving north from Goma, one passes through wide lava fields -- black, broken and sharp to the feet. About seven miles along the rutted road, the uniforms of the soldiers change, from the solid green of the FARDC (the Congolese military) to the camouflage of the CNDP (the rebel forces led by Laurent Nkunda). For civilians, the colors of the uniforms often matter little -- all the groups are capable of pillage and rape.

Less than a mile from the front, a left turn brings you into the Kibati I camp -- more than 6,000 men, women and children displaced by nearby fighting. The camps channel the problems of Congo like a storm drain after a flash food -- skin diseases, worms, diarrhea and respiratory ailments. A teenage girl wears a heavy coat against her malarial chills. An 8-year-old boy named Glory smiles for the camera though his hand is hot with fever.

When the various armies move, whole towns flee, causing spikes in sexual violence and acute malnutrition. And this individual suffering gathers into shocking statistics. Perhaps 4 million deaths related to war over the last decade. Or maybe it is 5 million. We know that the events are approaching a holocaust scale when the margin of error is measured in millions.

The fighting of late October and early November demonstrated every aspect of the challenge. The United Nations peacekeeping force (MONUC) had planned to use a cease-fire to insert itself between the combatants. The Congolese army violated the cease-fire almost immediately to attack the CNDP. In the ensuing fighting, Congolese forces were routed and fled down the road to Goma, killing and looting their countrymen as they ran through town and beyond. Some units of the Congolese army fired on the peacekeepers themselves. The United Nations military response was largely confused and ineffective, leading to the loss of a strategic town of Rutshuru that MONUC had pledged to defend. In the conquered village of Kiwanja, the triumphant rebels answered resistance with a door-to-door massacre of more than 50 people -- the killing done with machetes and clubs.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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