DRCongo: A History of Pain and Possibility

By Carol Landau & Rebecca Garland


You might be surprised to learn that one of the largest groups of refugees we serve at Beautiful Day comes originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRCongo). Unlike other countries such as Afghanistan, Ukraine and Haiti, the instability there does not attract many headlines. The country’s history is so complex that most news outlets find it easier to focus on other international crises that are more clearly defined. But while the underlying causes are not well-publicized, the mass exodus of millions of Congolese over the last 20 years makes it obvious that all is far from well. In the past two years alone, more than 1 million people have fled the country, and in the past 20 years, approximately 105,000 Congolese refugees have come to the US, making them the fourth largest group from a single nation to be resettled here. In Rhode Island alone, the number of Congolese refugees and their families totals around 300. Given these numbers, it is understandable that so many have enrolled in Beautiful Day’s job training programs over the years. 

The DRCongo has a tragic history that has led to the present-day chaos and violence. While indeed complicated, a more complete understanding of this history will help us to better support our Congolese neighbors. 

DRCongo is the second largest country in Africa, about the size of Western Europe and home to 112 million people. It is endowed with abundant natural resources that include vast deposits of diamonds, copper and cobalt (used in making the batteries in computers and e-cars); one of the largest forest reserves in Africa; and about half the hydroelectric potential of the continent due to the Congo River, the deepest river in the world, that extends 3,000 miles into the interior from its mouth at the Atlantic coast. Until the 1600s, the area was prosperous and stable, consisting of several large kingdoms and numerous tribal governments that levied taxes, kept order and established diplomatic relations with countries as far away as Spain and Portugal. But the last 400 years have been marked by conquest, subjugation and disintegration that have eroded all prosperity. Today, the DRCongo is the second poorest country in the world with an average annual income of $449. It is wracked with civil strife, violence and a legacy of corruption that is breathtaking in its scope.


The destabilization of the DRCongo began in the 1600s with the transatlantic slave trade. The country was easily accessible to slave traders by way of the Congo River. As the slave trade increased in the 1700s, huge areas were depopulated and the local economy crumbled. By the 1800s when European colonization began in earnest, DRCongo was already severely weakened and unable to mount a strong resistance. 

In 1885, DRCongo was seized by King Leopold II of Belgium who treated the renamed “Congo Free State” as his personal property and used forced labor for the production of rubber and ivory. His cruelty was unmatched, even in the context of colonialism, and a time of atrocities and death followed. The people fought back with several rebellions, but they were defeated and tortured under Leopold’s command. After pressure from missionaries and international activists (including Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Leopold turned the country over to the Belgian government in 1908 and it was renamed the Belgian Congo. Some minimal education and healthcare was established, but reforms focused mainly on sustaining the working population and the brutality continued. The primary goal was the extraction of natural resources. There are estimates that between 1885 and 1960, the population of the DRCongo was reduced by half, with approximately 10 million deaths due to malnutrition, torture and disease.

During the Belgian era following Leopold’s reign of terror, native Congolese were excluded from all levels of government. In 1960, at the time of independence, the transitional government set up by Belgium continued this tradition, allowing few native Congolese to take part. A government that excluded most of its people was doomed to failure and violence broke out immediately following independence, eventually leading to civil war. The Katanga province, with its rich mining resources, declared its independence with the backing of Belgium. And in 1961, the country’s first prime minister was executed by a secessionist group with the aid of Belgian “advisors” and the collusion of other western countries. 

There followed several more years of rebellions and near collapse of the government. But in 1965, Mobutu Sese Seke, Chief of Staff of the army, seized power in a coup, named himself President and changed the country’s name to Zaire, a word meaning “the river that swallows all rivers.” After several unsuccessful attempts to implement strategies for economic growth, Mobutu became more corrupt over time. It is estimated that during his 32-year tenure as president, he stole $4-5 billion from the country for his personal use. 

As the Cold War increased in the 1970s and 1980s, Mobutu was supported by the US, France and Belgium as part of a strategy to stop Soviet influence at any cost. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he lost international support. As his power base crumbled, Mobutu encouraged ethnic strife and violence as a distraction. In 1997, he was finally overthrown by Laurent Kabila, who restored the country’s name and claimed to support democratic reforms. Unfortunately, the reality was very different. Kabila banned political parties and demonstrations, and as violence escalated, he was assassinated in 2001. He was succeeded by his son, Joseph Kabila, who governed from 2001-2018. Although some stability was restored, forced disappearances and human rights abuses remained common.

As these interminable struggles for power dragged on, the ethnic tensions encouraged by Mobutu erupted into the bloodiest war since WWII. The Great Congolese War of 1997 was precipitated by the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda. The conflict spread to Eastern DRCongo and eventually drew surrounding countries into it as well. The wars ended only when Joseph Kabila agreed to share power with former insurgents, but by then 5.4 million more people had died. 

Today, Felix Tshisekedi serves as President, elected in 2018 in the first free elections ever held. Since he assumed power, numerous conflicts in the eastern portion of the DR Congo continue and human rights abuses still occur, primarily in the provinces of North and South Kivu, Orientale, and Katanga. Over 100 armed groups are believed to be operating in these provinces, terrorizing local communities and vying for control of areas where the central government is weakest. Virtually all of the Congolese refugees at Beautiful Day come from this region. 


Throughout all the wars and violent transitions of power, the most vulnerable people in the DRCongo have been women and girls. There has been widespread violation of human rights and horrific incidents of sexual and gender-based violence, including rape used as a tool of war. It has been recorded that at certain points during the conflicts, as many as 1000 women were raped daily with young girls below 18 years making up 65% of the victims. Aline Binyungu, a Congolese refugee and the co-founder, along with her husband, of Women’s Refugee Care in Providence, explains that violence against women in the DRCongo has its roots in a culture that is dominated by men. She says, “Women are not considered important in our society. They are not consulted; they are not given educational opportunities; they depend totally on their husbands.” She goes on to say that the risk to women does not diminish after they flee the country. In fact, she says the risk of sexual assault and violence may be just as great in the refugee camps as in the country they just fled.

Refugee camps are set up to serve as temporary shelters. Yet many people spend their whole lives in these camps waiting in vain for a stable country to accept them. Conditions in these camps are primitive and policing and other security measures often insufficient. People live in tents or shacks, food is scarce and opportunities for education, employment or meaningful activities are limited. As frustrations grow, women bear the brunt. Women are most often responsible for collecting firewood, making them vulnerable to sexual assault while out alone. They may be forced to engage in sex in exchange for food. It is estimated that over half of Congolese women are subjected to intimate partner violence. Mental health problems related to ongoing trauma are common.


Despite this tragic legacy of oppression, war and violence, there is hope for the future of DRCongo. Even as the conflicts continue, local efforts to support economic development and healing provide bright spots. There are ongoing efforts to support small business development in both the North and South Kivu regions, as demonstrated by the creation of several business incubators like Kivu Entrepreneurs in Goma and the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) in Bukavu. At a local entrepreneurial fair last July, Ibrahima Bokoum, ECI’s Finance and Operations Director, said: “Things will change from the bottom up, not the other way around. Entrepreneurship is risky here and elsewhere. But nevertheless, the inviolable principle of the human being is to dream, to emancipate, to invent and to move forward.”

Local efforts to help survivors of sexual violence also provide reason for hope. In 1999, Dr. Denis Mukwege founded Panzi Hospital in Bukavu that specializes in treating survivors of gender-based violence. The hospital takes an integrated approach, providing psychological and economic support as well as legal aid. To date, Panzi Hospital has treated more that 85,000 women and has received international acclaim. In fact, in 2018, Dr. Mukwege was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

Efforts from abroad by Congolese exiles are also spreading awareness and providing hope. Rose Mapendo is a Congolese human rights activist now living in the US who survived the murder of her husband, family separation and brutal imprisonment. She founded the Rose Mapendo Foundation in order to make counseling available to women survivors from the DRCongo and surrounding countries and to support efforts to bring peace to the region. Countless nonprofit organizations exist all over the world that are providing direct aid and social service support to resettled Congolese refugees seeking to rebuild their lives in their new home countries. Some of these organizations, like Women’s Refugee Care in Providence, were founded by Congolese refugees who know first-hand what their participants have experienced. They remain connected to the DRCongo and are providing support from the outside in. Other nonprofits are supporting the Congolese in other ways. For instance, at Beautiful Day we welcome them into our job training programs and sometimes permanently hire graduates like Rose Ntirampeba (https://beautifuldayri.org/blogs/trainees/meet-roseand Selemani Mayundo(https://beautifuldayri.org/blogs/trainees/meet-selemani-1) who manage our farmers markets. In Providence, a large and vibrant Congolese community has put down roots and is growing. We are proud that so many Congolese have decided to make Rhode Island their new home and we celebrate the richness and diversity that they bring to our communities. 

The problems in the DRCongo have deep roots. As Ibrahima Bokoum stated, lasting solutions will have to come from the bottom up. Clearly, outside support is needed to continue to foster local initiatives that support economic development and healing like those just described. But it is through the efforts of regular people like Denis Mukwege and Rose Mapendo that lasting change will occur. It will not be an easy road, but at Beautiful Day we insist on hope. We continue to believe that even with all its diamonds, minerals and hydroelectric power, the country’s greatest resource by far is the Congolese people.


Thank you for reading this far! Beautiful Day is grateful for your interest and we encourage you to repost this blog on your social media. As stated before, the situation in the DRCongo is underreported and more people need to be informed. Thank you for your help in spreading the word! 

If you would like to be more deeply involved, we encourage you to support Beautiful Day financially. 100% of the profits from our business are used to support the job training programs we run for refugee youth and adults. However, these profits do not cover all our expenses so we also rely on the generosity of kind supporters who care about refugees. We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with you in this important work.

Suggested Further Reading:

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild. This is a classic of colonial history that traces King Leopold’s rule of terror in DRCongo.

Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers our Lives (2023) by Siddharth Kara. Reveals the use of child labor and other human rights abuses in the cobalt mining industry in DRCongo.

Refugee: A Memoir (2021) by Emmanuel Mbolela (translated by Charlotte Collins). Traces a refugee’s journey from DRCongo to Netherlands.

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (2012) by Jason Stearns. Documents the history the Great Congolese Wars of 1997 and 1998 through the eyes of those who experienced them.

Written by Carol Landau

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