KINDU, Democratic Republic of Congo -- Just outside this town in the heart of the Congo, the jungle began to swallow the road. It shrank from two lanes to one, then to half a lane, and finally to a rutted forest path interrupted from time to time by a series of streams.
Barefoot hunters trudged along the way, carrying carcasses of monkeys strung on sticks. Farmers balanced their harvests of pineapples in baskets atop their heads. A caravan of motorbikes roared across a crude bridge of loosely tied logs, as thousands of orange, yellow, and purple butterflies danced out of the way.
Known simply as the Kasongo road, it is a strangely peaceful 150-mile corridor -- strange because peace has seldom come this way. Until recently, militias of various stripes killed, raped, or robbed any who dared take this route from Kindu, the regional capital, to the town of Kasongo. The region was effectively cut off from the world.
Now, with its steady stream of wayfarers and commerce, it is what passes for hope here, a hint at a reversal of fortune in the Congo, the world's most violent land for the last 60 years.
As large as the eastern half of the United States, the Congo has long been a wound in the middle of the continent, blessed by its rich deposits of gold, diamonds, and other precious minerals, cursed by those who have exploited them -- and brought war with them. Human rights groups estimate that more than 3.5 million civilians have died in the unremitting fighting that began in 1996, either directly from the warfare or from disease and malnutrition as they tried to escape. That is more deaths than in any conflict since World War II.
Now, nudged by other governments, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a chance -- a slender chance -- to undo the devastation wrought by generations of conflict and despotic rulers and begin to live up to its name.
The transitional government in Kinshasa -- a tense coalition led by President Joseph Kabila, 33, last month shepherded through a new constitution that supports democratic ideals. Most important, the government is beginning to register voters in Kinshasa, the first steps toward holding nationwide elections, some time in the next year.
And, after two years of the transitional government and an official ceasefire, several regions of the Congo have stabilized, including the area around central Kindu -- a town of roughly 50,000 people about 600 miles east of Kinshasa, the capital. The fighting is largely limited to the still-dangerous Ituri region in the northeast.
These are intimations of progress -- but only intimations. It is hard to imagine a more challenging place to build a working government or hold an election. A two-week trip across the country found desperate challenges everywhere, from the chaotic markets and the swirl of political intrigue in Kinshasa; to the utter isolation and abandonment in the center of the country; to the fortified eastern cities of Bukavu and Goma, where UN peacekeepers have secured patches of land but dare not venture far beyond them.
The heavy task ahead
It is a two-day, bone-crunching ride by motorbike and four-wheel-drive from Kindu south to Kasongo, the town of 30,000 for which the road is named.
There, the languid beauty at the core of the Congo envelops a visitor. Bougainvillea flowers add dashes of pink, orange, and fuchsia along narrow paths, in between mud huts. Long, arching banana stalks sprout from soil the color of dark chocolate. The road is full of children walking to school and men pedaling bicycles to work -- there are fewer than a dozen cars in the town.
But this peaceful scene masks how unspeakably hard life has been -- and how hard it will be to rebuild social structures here. The wars left almost nothing behind; locals scratched out an almost feral existence, scavenging berries and roots, when first they returned from the bush to their devastated community.
Just off the road, Tutu Al Kaponda Marmot, a former school principal, walked into a once-grand two-story home of a Belgian family that until two years ago had been in the possession of various rebel groups. It is now a hulk of a building, covered with graffiti and with no panes in the windows. One read, ''Why are you rebels in this house? You only want to kill people."
Marmot's job now is to run elections for Kasongo and the rural areas around it, a territory of hundreds of square miles and 500,000 people. The shattered house serves as his headquarters. He said he had no money, no furniture, and no direction from Kinshasa. Each morning, his unpaid staff of eight brings chairs and desks from their homes to the election headquarters. Every night, they lug the furniture back home.
''Imagine what it takes to bring a country like ours to democracy? We don't even have identification papers!" said Marmot, laughing ruefully.
His tasks include conducting the first voter registration in his district in 45 years, educating people about democracy and their rights, and then figuring how to transport a voting machine and generator (180 pounds total) to each jungle town within a 50-mile radius. Only trails link the villages. He said there was only one way to do it: ''The United Nations will have to fly them in."
And that, in fact, is the how the UN plans to do it. It is a nation-building exercise without equal. The Congo has an estimated 28 million voters, three times as many as in Afghanistan's recent election.
Progress all but halted in Kasongo, and scores of places like it, after the Congo won its independence from Belgium almost exactly 45 years ago. In the first five turbulent years after independence, the democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was overthrown and later assassinated. Then Mobutu Sese Seko took power, beginning a corrupt, dictatorial reign that would last 32 years.
As he became richer, the country grew poorer. And since his overthrow eight years ago, the downward spiral has only gotten faster and steeper.
Down the road from the district election headquarters, in a Roman Catholic Church rectory, Father Simon Ngongo, 59, remembers the transition from Belgian rule to independence well.
''Life was better in 1962," Father Ngongo said. ''We had all the necessities to live. You had the infrastructure -- water, the roads, the train that came often, all that remained from the period of colonization. For 45 years, we have had nothing good."
UN peacekeepers left Kasongo more than a year ago, as troops were shifted to the more volatile east.
The only remaining outsiders are two charity organizations, CARE and Concern, an Irish group. They, along with the church, provide the only services available here, paying for medicines, schooling, job training, and providing perhaps 100 jobs.
With the help of those relatively small contributions, many residents have gone back to rebuilding their lives. Food has become somewhat more plentiful as many locals plant vegetable gardens, and others catch fish in the nearby Congo River. And the train began running again in the last year, from the southern city of Lubumbashi to Kindu, drawing crowds of local people who cheer its every appearance. But it comes just once a month, bringing a tantalizing trickle of material goods from the outside world, changing life ever so slightly. A bottle of beer that cost $5 before the trains started running, now is down to $4.
''The conditions for living have been destroyed," the priest said. ''We can't expect anything from the government. The government, actually, is still feared by the population. The mentality of the chiefs in the government is to take money and put it in their own pockets. We have to change that immoral behavior."
Congo's corrupted are divided into two broad categories. There are the powerbrokers who go after multinational corporations or foreign visitors for hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the opportunity. And then there are those who operate on a petty scale, like the traffic policemen who issue citations for a variety of imagined offenses, and then pocket the proceeds to supplement their $10 monthly salaries.
The practice is pervasive. When two journalists arrived at Kindu's tiny airport recently, one man seized their travel documents issued by the government in Kinshasa -- the papers were deemed useless in the unofficial kingdom of Kindu, a country within a country. Asked why he was taking the documents, the man rolled his eyes and shouted, ''I am the chief immigration officer!" When he calmed down, he said the visitors could get the documents back after they met with the governor -- in a few days perhaps.
The local heads of CARE and two UN organizations intervened, traveling to the governor's residence that weekend night. Governor Kosolo Sumaili harrumphed -- and stalled for time. The following morning, he declared that foreigners need additional documents to travel in his province. He called his local immigration chief on the speaker phone, and told him to process the new document.
''How much should I charge?" the immigration chief asked.
''Not too much," the governor muttered.
''We should charge $700 for these," the immigration director shouted. An hour later, he demanded $120 for the papers, smiling sourly as the money changed hands.
Walking away, CARE's Kindu director, Dieudonne Cirhigiri, said, ''Now you see what we have to deal with."
The country's Belgian-educated chief auditor, Mabi Mulumba, 64, said that corruption is rampant because there is no rule of law anywhere in the nation. ''As long as there is no justice system, people will go on stealing," Mulumba said in an interview in his Kinshasa office. ''Impunity is what corrupts people here."
For CARE, which has its largest operations in the Congo in Kindu and the surrounding area, Maniema province, this period of rule by the transitional government in Kinshasa poses new risks. A predatory government, agency officials fear, is replacing predatory militias.
''Government here means people in power taking things," said Brian Larson, CARE's country director, in an interview in Kinshasa.
He has learned this directly. Earlier this year, Sumaili, accompanied by 15 armed men, commandeered one four-wheel-drive vehicle each from CARE and Concern, according to officials from both groups. He returned them five days later after the organizations complained to President Kabila's office. And not so long ago, a police officer beat up CARE's former director in Kasongo for allegedly not paying CARE workers promptly. When a radio announcer reported the assault, soldiers also beat up the announcer, according to CARE officials.
The police officer, according to Sumaili's office, fled to Kinshasa, where he remains at large.
'We are hungry'
Meanwhile, in the capital, there is a simple logic to life: Survive by any means.
Police patrol for petty graft, not to catch lawbreakers. Children fetch water for their mothers, instead of going to school. Professors sell sandals in the market because it pays better than teaching.
And each morning in downtown Kinshasa, hundreds of workers report to their jobs at the Office of Post and Telecommunications, which oversees a postal system that no longer functions and the 10,000 fixed telephone lines in a land of 60 million people. In contrast, the country has nearly 2 million mobile telephone users, all signing up in the last five years.
The cavernous postal office is silent, and completely empty of customers; the only people here are the workers behind counters, or in a few offices on the second floor. Why open a business with no customers? One worker whispers an answer: Employees show up in hopes of being paid some day.
They are owed 62 months back pay -- more than five years wages.
''When Mobutu was overthrown, we thought that things would get better," said one senior postal officer, his voice echoing through the hallways. He asked not to be named for fear of losing his job. ''But after some years, we realized that we were wrong. These leaders of ours are killers, looters, or Mafia-like criminals. They waged a war so they could get rich."
In the absence of a functioning state, Kinshasa's residents have grown adept at seizing any advantage, however slight. They have created what is doubtless one of the world's most sophisticated informal economies.
The state provides water to only a third of the city's residents, so companies sell large jerry-cans by the hundreds of thousands, and still other companies send out hundreds of donkey-pulled carts with water-filled cans to sell. People who fly from eastern Congo to Kinshasa often carry loads of freshly picked strawberries, which are then sold in markets.
''Who is responsible for helping poor people? No one," said Mariam Manzuleu, 49, a mother of nine children who sells dried, salted fish outside a downtown market. ''So we must take responsibility for ourselves. We don't have money for school fees, we don't have access to medical care, we are hungry."
Shoulders rubbing shoulders, people edged in and out of the market, past Manzuleu's small table of fish. She said her husband had lost his job as a university administrator, so she became a fish-seller, earning about $3 a day. At the end of the conversation, she asked a visitor to pay her $100 for sharing her opinions. An eavesdropping policeman chimed in, wanting $10 ''for protection."
Both were gently rebuffed.
Soldiers and rape
Even with such difficulties, Kinshasa's relative stability is the envy of those who live in the northeast of the Congo -- an area about twice the size of New England.
In Bukavu, some 800 miles east of Kinshasa, the world's largest detachment of UN peacekeepers -- nearly 17,000 soldiers -- struggles to pacify the region. They complain that they don't have nearly enough soldiers for the job, and so they pick their fights carefully.
Bukavu, a regional economic center across Lake Kivu from Rwanda, was an obvious choice for intervention: Last year a group of turncoat military officers, possibly supported by the government of Rwanda, captured the city and killed, raped, and pillaged for two months. The rebels were finally pushed out of the city, and since then the Pakistani peacekeeping troops have started the laborious job of trying to train local soldiers for a new national army and win back the confidence of residents.
At the beginning of the training, ''the Congolese were pathetic," said Pakistani Captain Faisal Azher Rana, as he patrolled the city recently. ''And they're still not very good. But here was an army with nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and almost no training. They are getting better."
Faisal stopped at a group of 12 Pakistani peacekeepers on duty in a city square. They were spread out in a V formation, rifles against their chests. ''When I came five months ago," he said. ''I was surprised that Rwanda and Burundi, very small countries, would attack the Congo, a very big country. . . . Now I understand. There was no proper army."
But the soldiers need pay to go along with training, Pakistani officers said.
''They get $10 a month!" said Major Nasrullah Khan, who had joined Faisal on the patrol. ''They don't cause trouble when they're around us, but we've seen them setting up roadblocks and collecting 'taxes' at gunpoint. They tried to rape a girl a few nights back just 100 meters away from our troops. Luckily, our troops saved her."
According to several human rights groups, rape has been used as a weapon in war to an unprecedented extent in the Congo.
In Kibombo, a village halfway between Kindu and Kasongo, several women who had been raped during the fighting said they continue to suffer.
Anjelane -- who like the other women declined to give their full names -- said she is ready to forgive the rebels who raped her repeatedly two years ago. But the 30-year-old, a mother of eight, worries more rapists lurk in the jungle.
''Every time I have to go to the bush, I am scared. Every time there's a sound, I shiver," she said.
And Julienne, just 19, said after rebels raped her one night in the forest, her suitors for marriage have refused to give her family a full dowry, which is seven goats for her father's side and five goats for her mother's. Each goat costs about $25. ''It wasn't my fault what happened," Julienne said, her eyes brimming with tears. ''Now these boys want to give us fewer goats. I won't do it."
'We have hope'
As the Congo struggles toward stability, survival also means coping with illness in a society with a barely functioning health care system. In many places, such as the central corridor from Kindu to Kasongo, foreign charities are the only support for clinics and hospitals.
At a Kasongo health clinic, CARE provides medicine and trains health workers, but conditions remain dreadful. In the back of the clinic, nurse Lungumangu Lyondo conducted a quick examination of a pregnant woman who moaned softly. As Lyondo walked into a dark, airless delivery room two bats swooped over his head. He didn't flinch.
''This is no place to give birth," he said angrily. ''Look at this metal bed -- it's broken. We can't see anything."
At the town's hospital, a mile away, conditions were better, if only slightly.
On a metal table one afternoon, a 4-year-old girl lay naked, her eyes shut, completely vulnerable and alone. Victorina Kalonda had come in with a high fever, a stiff neck, and severe headaches, signs of often-deadly meningitis.
A nurse had performed a spinal tap, but now busily filled in other patients' reports. Dr. John Descemet Kaozi, 30, walked in the room, but only glanced at the girl. Asked about her, the doctor said they would get Victorina's results in a day or two. Asked why so long, the doctor shrugged. ''Our lab has a backlog."
But later that day, the doctor had pushed the lab for quick results, which confirmed she had meningitis; he prescribed antibiotics. The next morning, the girl lay in a hospital bed, clothed and breathing normally. Victorina's mother smiled at her daughter. ''She's much better," the mother said. ''We have hope."
She was one girl in one isolated village in a nation of thousands of isolated villages, but her rally had lifted the spirits of those around her. Dr. Kaozi smiled. ''We got her in time," he said.
John Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com