Since European colonization in the nineteenth century, civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—formerly known as Zaire—have endured several periods of violence and systematic exploitation. Under Belgian rule in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the country's natural resources were 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 ending 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 corruption.
In the 1990s, with the waning of the Cold War and subsequent decrease in external financial and political support for Mobutu, the government's control over competing regional interests began to break down. Long-standing disputes about the distribution of wealth and access to power threatened the country's stability. Inter-ethnic tensions and low-level violence between groups increased.
Adding fuel to this unstable mix, some one million refugees from Rwanda, mostly Hutus 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 eastern DRC, bringing an impoverished population, radicalized ideology, and a recent history of extreme violence.
First War (1996-1997)
Organzing themselves in the fertile grounds of the massive refugee camps in eastern DRC, the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide began preying on the local Congolese population and conducting attacks 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 DRC'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, Kabila changed his support away from the Rwandan government and began aiding armed groups associated with the perpetration of the Rwandan genocide. In August 1998, Rwanda and Uganda again invaded the Congo. Other nations quickly joined in and Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia rallied to the Congolese government's defense. A large number of local rebel groups and militias, some ethnically based and many sponsored by foreign militaries, also took part in the conflict. The United Nations (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.