GOMA, eastern Congo and NAIROBI, Kenya — Last year was a terrible one for the people of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as it was marked — once again — by murder, rape, violence and abuse on a horrific scale.
In that respect it was much like the year before, and the one before that. Some aid groups estimate that over 5 million people have died since 1998, mostly from disease and malnutrition.
The seemingly endless and faraway nature of the wars in Congo make them easy to ignore.
Until, that is, you realize that the internet-enabled smart phone beeping in your pocket, or the handheld games console that whiles away dull hours contain inside them little pieces of eastern Congo.
Coltan is one of the minerals, including tin, gold and diamonds, dug from the muddy hillsides of eastern Congo by miners working in slave-like conditions.
(Watch the personal story of one Congolese miner, which ran in early 2009.)
Profits from the sale of Congo's minerals not only fuel the fight, they may be the reason for the continuing conflict, according to the U.S.-based advocacy group Enough, in a report published this month.
“Contrary to critics who argue that the militarization of mining in eastern Congo is purely symptomatic of a dysfunctional security sector and poor governance, conflict minerals are both a cause and consequence of Congo’s dilapidated state apparatus,” wrote researchers David Sullivan and Noel Atama.
Last year a United Nations-backed offensive was launched to clear out a brutal Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), some of whose leaders are blamed for Rwanda's 1994 genocide.
The offensive, called Kimia II, has not succeeded and this month Enough warned that, “the pursuit of mineral resources by armed elements on all sides of the conflict has only accelerated.”
Late last year a U.N. group of experts revealed just how the international minerals trade fueled the fighting in eastern Congo but human rights abuse and resource exploitation in Congo have gone hand in hand for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, Belgium’s King Leopold annexed the entire country to steal its ivory and rubber and brutalized the people in the process. His emissaries would kill reluctant workers and hack off their hands to prove bullets weren't being wasted.
With the abrupt end of colonialism half a century ago, the foreign white exploiters were replaced by a rapacious black elite. For decades President Mobutu Sese Seko funded his dictatorship by treating the country’s treasure trove of raw materials as a personal piggy bank. When his rule imploded, a fight for resources erupted that continues, fragmented and confusing, to this day.
The Enough report sums up eastern Congo's reality simply: “With only a few guns and shovels, local warlords can establish themselves as a group that must be reckoned with, financing their own growth into a militia powerful enough to demand a seat at the table in negotiations and eventually a position in the army — from where they can continue to profit from the minerals trade.”
Integration into the national army (the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or FARDC) is the aim of many of the rebels because as government soldiers they can continue their activities with virtual impunity.
When rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested last January, thousands of his fighters simply got new uniforms and carried on as before. In fact Nkunda's former rebels of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) since their integration into the Congo army have expanded their control over minerals and resources, according to the Enough report, U.N. experts and observers on the ground in eastern Congo.
“They didn’t integrate into the army, they took it over and now control huge parts of [the region],” a former diplomat told GlobalPost during a recent visit to Goma.
As dawn breaks in eastern Congo, clunky childlike wooden bicycles called "chukudus" careen down a dirt road one after the other loaded with sacks of "makala" (charcoal).
Their riders grin at their breakneck speed as they hurtle towards the city of Goma and the coal dust-covered market where the sacks sell for up to $35 each.
Charcoal sales bring in an estimated $30 million a year for armed groups that control the trade (including both the rebel FDLR and the national army) profiting from the exploitation of Congo’s impressive forests. That translates into a lot of guns and bullets and is reason
enough to keep fighting.
Another day and another misty Congolese dawn breaks over a landscape of muddy pits and stony hillsides where scores of men in ragged clothes, clutching little sacks pick through rocks by hand looking for lumps of dull gray coltan. The men who control the mine stand watch, AK47 rifles in hand, highlighting the coercive nature of the trade.
Dirty sacks full of the mineral are transported to towns such as Goma where "comptoirs" or trading houses prepare the minerals for sale to regional middlemen. From there the coltan enters the world market with multinational companies turning a blind eye to question marks over the minerals’ origins.
Charcoal finds its market among the benighted people themselves: The poorest have no option but to use this cheap fuel to cook food and boil water. At least that was the case until recently when the rangers in charge of protecting the wildlife of Virunga National Park introduced biomass briquettes as an alternative in a bid to remove the market.
But no one pretends that gold, tin or coltan finds its end users in Congo. Instead these minerals are worth fighting, killing, enslaving and raping for because rich foreign consumers want them.
As a recent review of a decade of resource exploitation in Congo published by Global Witness stated: “The illicit exploitation of natural resources in [Congo], and the accompanying serious human rights abuses, would not have taken place on such a large scale if there had not been customers willing to trade in these resources.”
And, of course, Western consumers eager to buy cell phones and other electronic gadgets that are made with the resources from them.