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Despite its vast natural wealth and material resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. During the colonial time, under the rule of Belgium’s infamous King Leopold II, millions of people died in brutal killings of genocidal proportions. Unfortunately, the mass violence has persisted in the post-colonial era under the dictatorship of Mobuto Sese Seko who ruled the DRC for more than three decades (until 1997). In the last two decades, the Eastern DRC has been the scene of local, national and regional warfare, becoming one of the most violent and volatile regions in the world. Between 1998 and 2003, more than three million people were killed in what is often referred to as “Africa’s World War.” The war started with a rebellion that was backed by Rwanda to overthrow Kabila’s government. Eventually, seven countries and several rebel movements were involved in the war.

The violence has continued on a large scale after the official end of the war. Multiple militia groups some of which were ethnically based, and some were associated with conflicts in the neighboring countries, continued to fight for power and resources, and engaged in mass violence against the local populations. Civilians belonging to all ethnic groups have been exposed to extreme suffering and brutality, including widespread sexual violence. Because the conflict is not fought along clear ethnic divides as in the neighboring Rwanda or Burundi (partly because there are hundreds of ethnic groups in the DRC), the violence in the DRC is often hard to understand by outside observers.

Multiple factors contribute to the ongoing violence, including interethnic tensions, illegal exploitation of mines and other resources by various parties (including international actors), local conflicts over land, corruption, and so forth. The complexity of the conflict in the DRC calls for interventions that address causes of violence at multiple levels—the local, national, and regional—simultaneously.

Rezarta Bilali, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Social Intervention at NYU’s Steinhardt College of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Her research focuses on the social psychological underpinnings of intergroup conflict and violence in various international settings.