The conflict in the Congo

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is sometimes known as Africa's first World War. The fighting involved seven neighbouring nations at one time or another, and it has proved to be the planet's deadliest conflict since World War II.

The war has rarely caught the attention of the international media, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that most of the phones and gadgets we rely on are made from the valuable minerals that fuel much of the conflict.

More than 5.4 million people have died as a result — the biggest death toll of any conflict since WWII
  • 2.7 million of the dead have been children.
  • 1 in 5 children will die before their fifth birthday
  • Average life expectancy is 47 years (UK average is 79)
  • The government spends an average of $2 per person, per year on healthcare for its citizens (in contrast the UK figure is $2,939)
  • More children under 5 die every year in Congo (pop. 63m) than in China (pop. 1,325m).
  • More than 200,000 women and girls have been the victim of rape or sexual violence
  • More than 1m people have been forced to flee their homes.
  • At 20,000 UN troops, Congo is home to the largest peackeeping mission in the world.
  • The UN Human Development Index report (2009) ranks D.R. Congo as 176th out of 182 countries.

Who is fighting who?

In a nutshell, the current Congo war has been fought since 1994 when Hutu rebels crossed over the border from neighbouring Rwanda – many of them having committed atrocities in the genocide there.

Various alliances and promises were made then broken - Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola have all been involved. There’s many militia groups and local warlords involved but the two main protagonists are the Congolese army (FRDC) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels.

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have also sought refuge in eastern Congo and have fought against the government troops. Bad pay, ill-discipline and lack of equipment mean that the Congolese army is not much different to the rebel groups and are almost as hostile to the local civilian population.

For more detail on the conflict see the BBC's Q&A page

What keeps the conflict going?

Poverty, lawlessness, the lack of infrastructure are the ideal breeding ground for warlords to exploit the local population and the vast mineral resources. The violence is so endemic that it’s all that a generation of young men know. Very few have been to school and there is no economy even if they were qualified for jobs in it.

Why is it not on the news?

Occasionally the violence flares up and Congo is thrust under the media spotlight for a short while. But the rapes and killings have been going on for so long now that it’s hardly ‘news’ any more. The country is so vast and remote that it’s hard to access many of the worst-affected areas, and the sheer scale of the problem makes it seem so hopeless that it feels like the rest of the world has almost given up on the people of Congo.

Watch a video from MSF UK's brilliant Congo site 'Condition Critical'

How are children affected?

More than 2.5 million children have died since 1998 as a result of the conflict in the Congo. Some are killed by the bombs, bullets and knives - but the vast majority die from preventable or treatable diseases because they can't access basic healthcare services.

As well as the ones that die, nearly a quarter of a million are out of school because their families can't afford to send them, or because there's no school to go to. See our Access to Education page for more details.

What is War Child doing?

We're running projects at either end of this huge country. In the capital Kinshasa (in the west of the country) we're supporting vulnerable street children. In Goma and North Kivu - near the border with Rwanda where most of the fighting has taken place - we're helping girls and young women to stay safe and rebuild their lives. Many of them have survived incidents of rape or sexual violence.

See the box below to find out more about our work on the ground.