Congo's Civilians Find Hope in Hell

There is a terrible smell in our work space, and it apparently has nothing to do with the fact that none of us has had a shower for more than a week.

It has nothing to do with the refugee camp 10 yards away, where some 5,000 people have sought safety in the shadow of the U.N. compound.

The tent where we and other journalists are working in Bunia is reportedly built atop a mass grave. Hundreds of bodies are believed to be buried here. We are told this place used to be the morgue for the local hospital. Now when it rains, there is the unmistakable smell of rotting flesh: tangy, sweet, and sickening.

During the past few years a large part of my job for ABCNEWS has been to report from some of the world's more dangerous places — Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iraq. But nowhere I have been compares with Congo.

The civil war that has raged here for four years has claimed more than 3 million lives, mostly through disease and starvation. It is by far the world's deadliest conflict. Nothing since World War II even comes close.

It seems to be a place without hope, cursed by its wealth of natural resources. Congo has some of the world's richest deposits of gold, diamonds, timber and oil. Human lives here are cheap by comparison.

Among the Children in Arms

This is a war in which many of the victims and combatants are children. Most of the soldiers are teenagers in hand-me-down fatigues; many are even younger. The United Nations estimates that more than half of the soldiers in Congo are minors. The average age is 12. Some are as young as 7.

Every day, you see pickup trucks overflowing with boys armed to the teeth. When they are not out soldiering, they often go to one of the town's two cinemas, where they show pirated videos of Rambo and other action movies. Jean-Claude Van Damme is a favorite here.

Today we saw one boy wearing a Tupac Shakur T-shirt. We also saw someone sporting the bearded face of Osama bin Laden on a black concert-style T-shirt. Why does he receive icon status? "Because he's a bad man, and he will kill you," the boy said, making a chopping gesture at his throat.

Rich in Spirit

Despite the depravity of this place, people somehow manage to carry on.

Religion helps many to get by. More than 90 percent of the population is Christian. There are more Anglicans in Congo than there are in England. The Catholic Church has a special Congolese rite, in which the priest chants his part of the service in the traditional way and the congregation answers in rich African harmonies. At Sunday Mass this week, little girls in white gloves and stocking feet danced to the hymns, and the congregation was joyous.

Producer Bruno Roeber, cameraman Doug Vogt, soundman Magnus Macedo and I all fought back tears watching this. Most of these people are homeless, most have no jobs, most had lost family members to war. But they still made contributions to the collection basket.

The donations will be used to build a bigger church. They need one. This church had an overflow crowd, all dressed in their Sunday best.

We met a man who calls himself Mr. Deedjo. He lives off the memories of a trip he took to Washington, D.C., in 1969. While he was there, he watched on TV as Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

"I can still see Neil Armstrong walking, slowly, slowly, on that moon face," he said wistfully.

Mr. Deedjo went to the United States as part of his training to become an engineer. But he hasn't worked in four years, since the war began. There has been no building in Bunia, no need for engineers. So his wife supports the family by selling flour at the local market.

Mr. Deedjo has no souvenirs of his trip. Not so much as a photograph. He has only his memories, and they keep him going. He can still vividly recall the buildings he saw there — which he will never get to construct here.

"In my mind, I am always in the USA, because what I got there, here I never got," he said. Today he might as well be on a different planet.

We spent some time today with Bunia's postmaster. Leo Kunda has worked at the city's post office and telecommunications center for 18 years. Every day he opens the place from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Never mind that all the phone equipment has been looted, or that Bunia has been cut off from the capital, Kinshasa, and the main part of Congo for years because of the war. Nevermind that most of the people whose names are on the P.O. boxes are either dead or have become refugees.

Inside the post office, the bicycles he once used to deliver the mail now gather dust. But never mind.

"We are absolutely open," Kunda insisted.

He proudly repeated for us, in French, the famous motto of the U.S. Postal Service: "Neither rain, nor hail, nor sleet, nor snow, nor gloom of night will stay these couriers from their appointed rounds."

What about war? we asked him. "No," he said, "not even that."