KISANGANI, Congo—There are two new burial grounds in this steamy river town.
Gaston Nyimu Kaya built one. It looks like a small Arlington cemetery."We buried the people we could identify here," says Nyimu, the young Red Cross chief of Kisangani. He points to long rows of wet graves laid out in a precise grid. By a clean-swept communal tomb carefully hedged with bricks, he says, "These people were more difficult. Some of them had been lying in the streets for a week."
Outside his graveyard fence a less tidy Congo resumes.
A weedy mass grave bulges nearby, filled with the remains of ethnic Tutsis butchered in an earlier pogrom. And Kisangani itself is an unkempt corpse. Blasted by 6,000 high-explosive shells in June, the city is reverting to jungle. Trees grow out of the roofs of its university buildings. Hungry professors grow cassava in the boulevards below.
Kisangani's second new cemetery flows nearby; Ugandan troops have dumped scores of their dead comrades into the muddy currents of the Congo River.
"The only thing the UN peacekeepers did was send out bulletins to the world," Nyimu recalls of the fighting that destroyed his city. Standing in his sodden black dress shoes, gazing out over what may be the cleanest cemetery in Africa, he adds: "As it turned out, the world couldn't care less about our obituaries."
Two years after the outbreak of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world still largely ignores the body count in central Africa. Most of the cemeteries here are just humps of red mud in the jungles. And the mighty Congo River, curving like a giant scythe through the battle zone, often conspires to hide the dead.
Yet only two weeks ago, the United Nations announced that some 600,000 children under 5 have probably perished from hunger, disease and violence in Congo's war. Assuming this staggering figure is correct, it matches all the dead in Angola during its 27 years of nearly continuous fighting.
Far removed from the cameras and headlines, off the political map, Congo bleeds from one of the most lethal, complex wars in the world.
Congo's conflict has been called "Africa's First World War" because of its stew of combatants. President Laurent Kabila, supported by allies Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia, is struggling to hold on to power against rebels backed by Rwanda and Uganda.
Competing armies flying a host of banners--nationalism, rebellion, revenge, profit--make the killing hard to contain. And diplomats worry that the fighting poses the greatest threat to African peace and stability in the new millennium.
Mentioned far less often in international circles is the suffering of the ordinary Congolese. Millions are trapped in the maw of the fighting. Isolated in Africa's interior, harassed by some 100,000 widely scattered troops on all sides, their plight is almost completely unknown.
"Even the fish don't want to stay in Congo anymore," said Mosiki Pombolo, a fisherman who lives at some rapids near Kisangani, the remote midway point of the Congo River's 2,900-mile journey to the Atlantic.
Pombolo stared into the Congo's churning currents. Fishing was bad.
"Many, many rockets and bullets have fallen into the river," he said finally. "The fish, when they hear this, go far away. They are just like people. They want tranquility."
Few outsiders have seen Congo's war up close.
The only real pathway through the vast wilderness of Congo's battlefield is the river itself. Rising from the plains near the Zambian border, it enters the war zone peacefully, from government-held Katanga province, and exits more than 2,000 miles away at the capital city, Kinshasa.
In between, however, travelers floating down the world's sixth-longest river in a canoe are witness to a landscape haunted by war; a place where time appears not only to have stopped, but where the clock seems to have been turned back a century by the fighting.