The country's mineral wealth is, of course, also the cause of many of its problems. In the past decade, neighbors Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe have all sent armies into the DRC, lured by the prospect of diamonds, copper, and gold.

Uganda's presence has been especially divisive in the northeastern province of Ituri, where it has spread arms liberally among rival ethnic Hema and Lendu groups, enabling them to slaughter each other with a brutality reminiscent of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. "The war is, by and large, a story of groups from the outside coming in and creating chaos," says Peter Rosenblum, who documented human-rights abuses in the country in the 1980s and now teaches law at Columbia University. But in Ituri, he adds, "the outside forces have succeeded in making the conflict local."

Of the outside forces, Rwanda has been the most belligerent in recent years. After the genocide in Rwanda, thousands of Hutus who had murdered their countrymen fled across the border to the DRC. In 1996 and 1997, Rwanda invaded the DRC, arguing that its Rwanda's security was threatened by the presence of these Hutus. But the United Nations has cast doubt on Rwandan president Paul Kagame's motives, and others are skeptical too. "It seems Kagame needs [the Hutus] there to keep his country under control," says Bushoki Batabiha, a Congolese civil-society activist who is currently a fellow at the International Peace Academy in New York. "They're a good scapegoat that allow him not to deal with poverty, land claims, and other issues in Rwanda."

Perhaps these conflicts wouldn't be so violent if the country wasn't steeped in a history of bloodshed. This dates back to the late 19th century, when King Leopold of Belgium, seduced by the region's rubber, ivory, and gold, waged a brutal campaign to win the territory. His "Congo Free State," created in 1885, was one of the most repressive regimes in history. Natives who didn't harvest enough rubber or ivory were either killed or had their hands cut off; a local army, trained by Belgians, was given license to loot, rape, and terrorize civilians. It is estimated that up to 10 million Congolese lost their lives during Leopold's rule. The era left an indelible imprint of violence on the country.

In 1960, independence brought with it a brief flare of hope under populist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, only to be extinguished when Lumumba was assassinated in 1961. In 1965, the United States helped install Joseph Mobutu, a Washington favorite who was scarcely better than his colonial predecessors. Under Mobutu, citizens were not allowed to wear ties or use first names. The president was reborn as Mobutu Sese Seko, and people who didn't wear a representation of his face on their body on Mondays lost their jobs. The country itself was renamed Zaire, and its people invented another word-kleptocracy-to describe their government's rapacious ways.

During Mobutu's regime, the Catholic Church played an important role in supporting a growing civil-society movement. "It required an act of faith to believe that democratic change could come, and church groups tried to create a space where people could be honest about what was happening in the country," says Rosenblum. One of the groups that received support from the Catholic Church during that time, La Voix des Sans Voix (Voice of the Voiceless), has become an influential human-rights organization; other groups are still active too. "There were Catholic nuns who became galvanized activists for democracy," says Rosenblum. Toward the end of the Mobutu era, there was considerable pressure from the international community, including from the Catholic Church, for Mobutu to open up the country to democracy. Archbishop Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, then leader of the Zaire Conference of Bishops, headed a national conference on the nation's future in 1991-92 But Rosenblum is quick to point out that "the Catholic church is certainly not angelic in the Congo"-for example, in Ituri, Catholic bishops have stoked conflict by supporting the Hema against the Lendu.

The desire for democracy grew steadily during Mobutu's 30-year rule, and in 1997, Rwanda-backed rebels captured Kinshasa and installed Laurent Desire Kabila as president. Kabila promptly split with his former Rwandan allies, sparking a new round of war in which the DRC government was backed by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe against Rwanda and Uganda. In 2001, Kabila himself was assassinated under mysterious circumstances and replaced by his 29-year-old son Joseph, who quickly went on an international tour to secure support for his country.

Since then, the DRC's trajectory has been erratic. In 2003, a peace agreement was struck in which former rebels were brought in to a transitional, power-sharing government. But in June 2004, conflict flared up when the border town of Bukavu was captured by a former Rwandan rebel leader, General Laurent Nkudu. And ethnic tensions continue to boil in Ituri, where the U. N. mission in the DRC (known by its French acronym, MONUC) is struggling to pressure armed groups to demobilize.

It's in this context that elections will play out, probably in the first half of 2006. In current polls, President Joseph Kabila is running neck and neck with Etienne Tshisekedi, whose reputation rests on the spirited opposition movement he created in the Mobutu era. Tshisekedi has broad popular support, but most DRC analysts think that he lacks the stature of a transformative leader. "Had he been Nelson Mandela, all of this could have been solved a long time ago," says Rosenblum. Batabiha agrees, saying that while Tshisekedi should be given a chance, "I don't see a big change coming from him."

The Catholic church in the DRC is likely to play a role in monitoring the election, when it happens. The head of the electoral commission is a Catholic priest, Abbe Malu Malu, and people in the church are already being trained as election monitors.

Batabiha and Rosenblum agree that elections alone won't solve the country's problems. "Whenever Congolese talk about the future, they talk about justice," says Rosenblum. "There's a deep sense within the country that those who have perpetrated the violence have impunity, which needs to be addressed." How that will happen is a subject of contention. The process for some kind of truth commission has been started but, says Rosenblum, is deeply flawed. "A problem like Ituri needs to be approached on multiple levels. You need soldiers on the streets, a ceasefire by force, and a way of dealing with justice issues, with mechanisms to put [justice] into place."

If there's any hope for a large-scale transformation, it probably comes from two non-government sources: civil society groups and the media. A free press, started in the waning years of the Mobutu regime, has gathered steam and is now an unstoppable force in the country. Batabiha points out that in 2004, eight cabinet ministers were dismissed when the press wrote passionately about their corruption. "The power of the press is at work in the Congo," he says.

But if the DRC is to succeed-if nationalism is to triumph over ethnic anger, and casual murders to be viewed once again with horror-it might need help from a higher power. "Western countries' development is based on a respect for human rights and a belief in the value of human beings-the Bible is the source for a lot of that," says Batabiha. "In the DRC, we need a leadership that believes in God."