Since European colonization in the nineteenth century, civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [formerly Zaire] have endured several periods of violence and systematic exploitation. Under Belgian rule in the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries, the country's natural resources were systematically looted, and its people enslaved, beaten, and killed in massive numbers. The period around independence in 1960 was marked by intense and often violent Congolese bids for power and succession, caught up in the tensions and geopolitics of the Cold War era.
In 1965, General Mobutu Sese Seko seized power, violently quelling a series of uprisings across the nation. He renamed the country Zaire as part of his efforts to purge it of the remnants of colonialism and restore its African identity. Mobutu ruled for over three decades by pitting internal groups against each other, exploiting the country's natural resources for personal benefit, and creating a system of patronage infamous for its depths of corruption.
In the 1990s, with the waning of the Cold War and subsequent decrease in external financial and political support for Mobutu, the Zairean government's control over competing regional interests began to break down. Longstanding disputes about the distribution of wealth and access to power threatened the country's stability. Inter-ethnic tensions and low scale violence between groups increased.
Adding fuel to this unstable mix, some one million refugees, mostly Hutu fearing that they would be targeted by Tutsis, fled into Zaire in 1994 at the end of the Rwandan genocide. With the masses of civilians came also the leadership of the Rwandan genocide, the Rwandan Armed Forces and their militia allies, the Interahamwe. The influx of refugees destabilized the east, bringing an impoverished population, radicalized ideology, and recent history of extreme violence to Zaire's east.
First War (1996-1997)
Organzing themselves in the fertile grounds of the massive refugee camps in Eastern Congo, the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide began preying on the local Congolese population and making incursions back into Rwanda. In 1996, the still-new Rwandan government responded by invading Zaire, aided by the Ugandan army and rebel Congolese militias under the command of Laurent Kabila. The invading army met little resistance. Less than one year after the first attack, Mobutu's government fell, and Kabila claimed the presidency, renaming the country the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The offensive was marked by massive human rights abuses against the Rwandan refugees, who were chased deep into Congo's forests. But in spite of their military victory, this campaign failed to effectively disarm the former genocidal forces.
Second War (1998-2003)
Shortly after coming to power, Laurent Kabila expelled his Rwandan advisors and began aiding armed groups associated with the perpetration of the Rwandan genocide. Rwanda and Uganda again invaded the Congo in August 1998. Other nations quickly joined in, as Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia rallied to the Congo's defense. A bewildering array of local rebel groups and militias, some ethnically based and many sponsored by up to nine foreign militaries, also formed and took part in the conflict. The UN has accused all nations involved of using the war as a cover for looting diamonds, coltan, gold, and other resources from this mineral-rich region.