Most books about Congo’s war focus, understandably, on the victims. Perhaps 5 million have died in this central African inferno, though that is a guess — no one is counting the corpses. Some were murdered with clubs, knives or farm tools. Most died more slowly, of war-induced hunger and disease. Their stories beg to be recorded before they are lost.

Yet on their own, they do not allow us to make sense of this most confusing of wars. Enter Jason Stearns. One of Congo’s most intrepid observers, he describes the war from the point of view of its perpetrators. He has tracked down and interviewed a rogue’s gallery of them. The resulting book, “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters,” is a tour de force, though not for the squeamish.

One young Congolese officer, with whom Stearns grew friendly, broke down after two years of interviews and admitted he’d been part of a death squad that murdered up to 100 civilians a day. He did it with a hatchet to the back of the neck, or with ropes around it. That “was the fastest way, and we didn’t spill blood,” he told the author.

Because the war is so complex and horrific — it has involved dozens of rebel groups, the armies of nine countries, hundreds of thousands of rapes and no single obvious cause — outsiders often dismiss it as an irrational outburst of savagery. Yet as Stearns painstakingly shows, most of the actors had reasons to take up arms.

Some were forced to. Some were defending their tribe or village. Some volunteered because pillage pays better than farming. Some craved power, which in Congo is the surest route to wealth.

The most disciplined and motivated force has been the army of Rwanda, Congo’s tiny neighbor. The Rwandan regime is dominated by Tutsis, the main victims of the genocide of 1994. They seized power during the genocide, thereby ending it. The Hutu perpetrators fled into Congo and used its leafy vastness as a base from which to mount attacks on their homeland. Rwanda’s Tutsi-led army invaded Congo twice to crush them. They did this with breathtaking ruthlessness, massacring tens of thousands of Hutu civilians.

The dictator Mobutu Sese Seko gave the killers safe haven, so the Rwandans marched 1,000 miles through the jungle in rubber boots and overthrew him in 1997. The puppet president they installed, Laurent Kabila, broke free of his strings, so they tried to oust him the next year.

Stearns describes the Kitona airlift of 1998, a daring raid that, had it been carried out by Americans, would be the subject of movies. Instead of advancing on foot again, the Rwandans commandeered a Boeing 707 and sent a tiny force leapfrogging across the country, hoping to take the capital, Kinshasa, by surprise. They had a secret deal that the Congolese garrison at a nearby airstrip would switch sides and welcome them, but they were not sure it would be honored. As they approached, the pilot fretted that they would be shot down. The top Rwandan officer on board told him not to worry and radioed to a man he said was the commander on the ground. A surprisingly clear voice reassured the pilot that it was safe to land. He did not realize that he was talking to a Rwandan officer lounging in the back of the plane. The Rwandans captured the airstrip, flew in reinforcements, seized a dam and cut off the power supply to Kinshasa. They were on the verge of toppling President Kabila when the armies of Angola (a neighbor) and Zimbabwe (a creditor) rushed to his rescue.

Those who have not spent time in Congo may not appreciate how much arduous legwork Stearns put into his reporting, and what perils he braved. At one point, a politician denounced him on the radio as an American mercenary — a potentially lethal accusation. He was lucky to escape. Yet he never boasts or lets himself become the subject of his harrowing tale.

Congo is now nominally at peace, but the killing is far from over. Stearns likens it to Europe during the Thirty Years War, when marauding bands of soldiers fought for the highest bidder. He quotes a Latin proverb: bellum se ipsum alet (“war feeds itself”). It is one that “many Congolese commanders would understand,” he laments.

Robert Guest is the business editor of the Economist. His book “The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption and African Lives” was recently published in paperback.


The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

By Jason K. Stearns


380 pp. $28.99