The BBC world affairs correspondent Mark Doyle begins a four-part series on the Democratic Republic of Congo by reflecting on his travels in the east of the country.
It is difficult to imagine a place more pivotal to the future of Africa than the DR Congo.
There are of course more important countries in terms of economic power and political clout. South Africa, Nigeria and half a dozen other African states can be ranked as serious players on the world stage.
But since Congo's latest war broke out in 1996, its potential to drag down the prospects of the whole continent have once again become clear.
The region's conflicts have left an array of displaced people
At the height of the war, the armies of nine African countries were either directly or indirectly involved in DR Congo.
Most of them still have influence through the medium of proxy militias, mafia-style business networks or ethnic links.
Under the transitional peace deal government DR Congo has a president and four vice-presidents drawn from the main local players in the conflict.
It also has the most expensive UN peacekeeping force in the world (it costs around $700 million a year) and is due to hold elections next June.
After a journey through the war-torn east of the country - I went from Bunia in the north-east to Uvira in the south-east - I find the idea of holding fair elections across the country, in just a few months' time, almost inconceivable.
Eastern Congo is a critical part of a critical country because it borders Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
All of these countries have their own internal conflicts. And all of them, in one way or another, have intervened militarily in Congo.
Rwanda is the key. Despite its small geographical size, it has one of the most powerful armies in the region.
It has intervened directly in Congo at least twice on the grounds that the remnants of the ethnic Hutu army which committed the Rwandan genocide of 1994 are still a coherent force hiding in the forests of Congo.
The government in the Rwandan capital Kigali argues that the armed Hutu represent a threat to ethnic Tutsi civilians in Rwanda.
This is almost certainly true. But more importantly, given the cynical way power is exercised, they are also a threat to the Tutsi-dominated military-economic power network which extends well beyond the borders of Rwanda.
Indeed, some independent experts argue that Kigali could do more to neutralise the Hutu extremists but that it does not do so because it finds their presence, though dangerous, to be useful.
Under this theory, the Hutus serve as a pretext for the Rwandan military/business elite to plunder Congo's rich resources.
This analysis is of course angrily rejected by Rwandan government officials.
They say it is tantamount to suggesting that they are using the victims of the 1994 genocide - and even future potential victims of violence - as political tools.
Almost everywhere I went in eastern Congo I was told by the UN, which helped me on my journey, that I needed a military escort.
I drove out of Bunia with Pakistani armoured personnel carriers at the front and the rear of my vehicle; I travelled outside the village of Walungu with a combined UN and Congolese government army patrol; and I made a journey along the Ruzizi River Plain, from Uvira to Kamanyola, with an escort of UN troops from Uruguay.
And almost everywhere I went there were armed militiamen at roadblocks designed to mark territory and extort illegal taxes.
I also saw a bewildering array of war-displaced people - villagers who had been attacked by one armed group because they were perceived to be sympathetic to another.
The war-displaced gather under plastic sheeting in pathetic groups scattered across the country, or they mingle hopefully outside town halls and UN positions waiting for alms.
The UN is the glue which is holding Congo together.
Although it is stretched absurdly thinly - currently about 10,000 soldiers for a country larger than western Europe - it seems clear that without a UN force, and international pressure for peace, the war would have been even longer, bigger and more deadly.
With so few soldiers the UN cannot, as a rule, physically stop fighting.
It can occasionally; UN helicopter gunships recently opened fire, for example, on a warlord in the south-east and stopped his advance.
But more typically, the UN encourages and facilitates dialogue.
In such a war-ravaged and huge country, this role is vital.
But it cannot go on like this forever.
The glue that holds Congo together should be the country's government and army. But neither of these institutions yet works properly.
In these circumstances, the idea of holding fair elections in a few months' time sounds like a bad joke.
One observer in Kinshasa said that by pressing for quick elections the international community was trying to rebuild Congo on the cheap.
Given Congo's history of generations of war, dictatorship and kleptocracy - from the time of the Belgian dictator King Leopold through local post-colonial versions of similar administrations - the observer said, such elections were doomed to failure.
Pressing for quick elections, he said, was pure wishful thinking - like waiting for the Messiah and a ticket to paradise.