The Congo turns 50 this month, but will it ever grow up?

The CBC's Nick Czernkovich spent three weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo this spring. This is the first in a series of reports.

Looking out the window of our Cessna Caravan as we skim over the treetops of the Ituri rainforest, it's difficult to imagine a place more beautiful than this.

The lush canopy tints the terrain in shades of green and stretches so far it seems to fall off the edge of the Earth. Up here there is peace, but tragically that peace does not make it to the jungle floor.

Enroute to Bunia airport, my pilot John turns to me and points to a small village off the right wing.

"See that?" he says. "Last week we had to fly in there to evacuate a group of girls that were raped." As if that weren't enough, he adds, "The youngest was only one year old."

It's nauseating to imagine these kinds of vile acts. But as I learned throughout the three weeks I spent here, this is not an isolated incident.

The CBC's Nick Czernkovich spent three weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo in April 2010, visiting relief camps and interviewing those involved in trying to stabilize the country, potentially one of the richest in Africa. Though the war in the eastern DRC officially ended in 2003, sporadic violence continues to plague the region and hundreds of thousands are still homeless and living in fear. In this series of articles and photo-essays, he asks: Seven years after the war has ended, what has changed?

In fact, while I was there in April, Margot Wallstrom, the UN's special representative on sexual violence in conflict, was telling the Security Council that the Democratic Republic of Congo was "the rape capital of the world."

Beneath the comforting beauty of the forest canopy indeed lies something sinister.

It is the kind of violence that, in one capacity or another, has existed here for a century or more.

And, in an irony not lost on those who want to help, the fact that the Congo has such great natural resources — such a great promise of prosperity — has only helped keep these conflicts alive.

Killing fields

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Conrad's now proverbial Heart of Darkness, is a place that is often overlooked by the West these days, perhaps because the fighting here has continued for so long.

In some ways, it seems, amid the more immediate crises of our times, the international community has become desensitized to the brutal, hard-to-understand battles in such an out-of-the-way place.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, known previously as Zaire. (CBC)

Yet the recent battles that have raged on in the eastern portion of the DRC have claimed the largest number of lives since the Second World War, an estimated 5.4 million deaths since 1998.

Last year alone, some 750,000 residents of North Kivu province in the East were forced to flee because of fighting.

Those who stayed on were left to deal with the emotional and physical consequences of such realities as gang rapes, abductions, severed limbs and the ever-present threat of attack.

Because of the violence, millions of people across a region the size of Western Europe have had to flee their homes and seek refuge in often makeshift camps or with supportive families in small villages.

At last count, an estimated 1.8 million "internally displaced persons" are still being housed in crowded camps or with host families, while others have crossed the border into neighbouring Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

Africa's world war

Based mostly in the rugged eastern portion of the DRC, the so-called African World War officially ended in 2003, the agreements signed providing a neat and tidy end to the conflict, on paper anyway.

DRC Quick facts

Size: Third largest country in Africa, almost a quarter the size of the U.S.

Population: 71 million with an average life expectancy of 54.7 years; over 200 ethnic groups.

GDP: $300 per capita

Government: President Joseph Kabila, a former guerrilla commander who, at 29, succeeded his father, Laurent-Desiré Kabila, after he was murdered in January 2001.

Adult literacy rate: 81 per cent of males, 54 per cent of women

HIV prevalence: 1.1 million people, four per cent of the adult population, the 10th worst.

Sources: Encyclopedias, CIA Fact Book

Since that time, though, regular reports of violence have continued to flow out of the region and it is evident that, while large cities like Goma and Bukavu are no longer under gunfire, the violence as a whole is still very much alive.

When I was there in April, many of the roads I travelled were still classified by the UN as "red zones" because of on-going hijackings.

The current conflict is often described as a war without fronts, where government soldiers (known by their acronym, FRDC) and rebel groups with different allegiances fight among each other for political control, land and resources.

There is no clear count of how many rebel fighters are currently active. Rebel militias form for many different reasons, often for the protection of people of a common origin or ethnicity.

The most prevalent rebel militia in the East DRC is the FDLR, a group that was originally comprised of Hutu militiamen, many of whom were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Officially, the FRDC is deployed to clamp down on the rebels. But, poorly trained and underpaid, the government soldiers are often said by aid groups in the field to have contributed as much to the humanitarian crisis as the rebels themselves.

In response to the initial situation the UN launched its peacekeeping mission in the region in 1999.

MONUC, as it is called, is now the single largest peacekeeping mission ever undertaken by the UN, with almost 20,000 soldiers deployed and an annual budget of $1.3 billion.

It is the mission that the UN wanted Canada to take over and manage (in exchange for a permanent Security Council seat, some said).

But the Harper government turned down the position last month, no doubt looking at the problems with the current operation and the intractability of the conflict.

Governor General Michaelle Jean and Joseph Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the capital Kinshasa on April 19, 2010. Addressing the DRC parliament, Jean said the widespread sexual violence against women here is a crime against humanity. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

One needn't look further than the local hospital in Bukavu to get a sense of just how prevalent the violence still is. At Panzi Hospital, staff treat on average 3,000 women a year for rape. That is at just one hospital.

By all accounts the DRC, which turns 50 this month (June 30), should be the envy of Africa, if not the world.

It is rich with mineral resources, including gold, diamonds and coltan, an essential power-storing ingredient in today's cellphones and consumer electronics. The DRC is also home to the second largest rainforest on the planet.

Yet, paradoxically, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, having the second lowest GDP per capita according to the International Monetary Fund.

There are no simple answers as to why things are the way they are in the DRC and no simple solutions to the country's vast problems. But given its central place in the African firmament, it is clear that the world can't stop looking for the ones that might be found.