Properly paved roads are scarce, and the few miles of macadam often don’t seem to connect to anything.
Most streets are, at best, hard-packed dirt with swirling dust that cannot stand up to fierce, nearly daily storms. Some roads are cratered with potholes so wide and deep they could almost swallow a Land Cruiser. The puddles are breeding pools for malarial mosquitoes.
One persistent rumor among weary Congolese has local officials canceling paving contracts because their slice of graft is too small.
“My country is broken,” said Hortense Barholere, a Congolese coordinator for the Washington-based Women For Women International. “Without a road, we have no mail. How can you receive a letter when you have no address?”
Despite abundant natural beauty and fertility, armed conflict — and related hunger and disease — have killed an estimated 5 million people here since 1998 — a veritable second Holocaust that the International Rescue Committee says claims 45,000 new victims every month in a country of 67 million people.
In comparison, the highly publicized death toll in the Darfur region of Sudan is thought to be between 200,000 and 500,000.
“By any yardstick, [Congo] has been a humanitarian disaster, and one the world has ignored,” John Holmes, undersecretary-general of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the U.N. Security Council earlier this year.
Few communities here have the most basic services: electricity, sanitation, potable water, honest police and access to more than rudimentary education.
The army, which in many developing nations is the key national institution, collapsed years ago. Today, its ragtag soldiers and their former rebel adversaries are only very slowly learning how to function as a cohesive force that could eventually defend Congo against foreign incursions and domestic instability.
Congo lacks other key qualities that make a nation: interconnectedness, a government that is able to exert authority consistently in territory beyond the capital, a shared culture that promotes national unity and a common language.
In a state without civil services, law or cohesion, bandits and militias rule with fear and fire. Impunity is widespread for crimes ranging from petty theft to gang rapes.
Law enforcement and the justice system are so weak that only the most unlucky offenders are apprehended, let alone convicted.
“If you look around, including places where society has broken down, you’ve got a generation of boys and men who have grown up without effective state order,” said Tony Gambino, an international consultant and aid specialist who has followed this country since he was a Peace Corps volunteer here 30 years ago.
The United Nations has stationed more than 20,000 troops and civilians in far eastern Congo, in an effort to train the disastrously unprofessional Congolese army and protect scores of tiny, isolated villages.