Survivor's Notebook

Congo Conundrum Part I

Columbite-tantalite (Coltan) is a mineral used in the production of cell phones, laptops and many other new electronics. Most of the world’s known deposits are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

MORE THAN FIVE MILLION (5,000,000) people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 1996, according to the International Rescue Committee. It’s estimated that 45,000 more die each month. These deaths are said to be the direct or indirect consequences of ongoing conflict waging in the country that continues to this day. An in depth look at the situation reveals the sad truth of how low humanity can sink into corruption.

Eastern DRC is also home to rich deposits of diamonds, cobalt and coltan. It’s estimated that 60 to 80 percent of the known deposits of coltan is found in the Congo. Even though coltan is so unknown to most people that it’s not even recognized by spell check, we rely on it as a vital component for many of our modern electronics including laptops, cell phones, video game systems and camera lenses.

Control of the region’s mines has fueled an ongoing conflict for the last 15 years, claiming up to 5,000,000 lives.

Coltan is short for Columbite-tantalite. It is a black tar-like mineral that becomes a heat resistant powder that can hold a high electric charge when refined. Coltan’s properties when refined make it a vital element in creating devices that store energy called capacitors. Some quantities of coltan can also be found in Rwanda which borders the DRC to the East. These minerals, which have been dubbed “conflict minerals,” are often cited as the fuel for the ongoing conflict.

I had the privilege of interviewing Kambale Musavuli, a Congolese man and the Student Coordinator and National Spokesperson for Friends of the Congo ( Friends of the Congo is an advocacy group whose mission is to: “Raise the consciousness of the world community on the challenge of the Congo and support Congolese institutions in bringing about a peaceful and lasting change.”

Kambale shared valuable insights on the ongoing conflict in the DRC. “The major forces directly involved are various rebel groups. However, behind some of the rebel groups are neighboring countries, particularly Rwanda who supports one of the major rebel groups and uses them as (a private army) to destabilize and loot the Congo. Ultimately, The United Sates and Britain are behind Rwanda and Uganda, the two countries that unleashed the killings in the Congo through two invasions (1996 & 1998). The two countries could not have waged the war that they have in the Congo without financial, military and intelligence support from the United States and the United Kingdom.”

Throughout this conflict, every time the warring factions clash, thousands of civilians are forced to relocate while the militias and armies dance around each other and avoid head on conflict, mostly concentrating on securing strategic locations. The general populace, without the stability to grow food or medicine, has been devastated by the conflict. The vast majority of deaths attributed to this conflict have resulted from hunger and disease that would be easily preventable in normal circumstances.

Among the ongoing atrocities that have caught global attention are mass rapings, gang-rapings and genital mutilation of Congolese women and girls. “If you destroy a woman, you destroy many families thus the whole society. Women in Africa are the care takers and the backbone of the entire community. Once destroyed, it becomes easy to get access to the land,” Kambale shares. “We also cannot forget that while women are being destroyed, men also are being raped and castrated, all in an attempt to intimidate the local population and move them away from areas rich of mineral resources.”

Also very disturbing are reports that the Mbuti (Pygmies), who are native to the rain forests of the region, have been hunted like wild game and eaten by members of various militias and armies who consider them sub-human. Reportedly, the two Ugandan-backed movements routinely enslave pygmies to forage for forest food and prospect for minerals, a UN official said. Hunters returning empty-handed were killed and eaten.

This is another sad example of traditional people who are targets of aggression from colonial forces. The fact is that people who are in touch with their culture will not allow the exploitation of their land. It’s only when the people’s values are defined by someone else that they think they benefit from the destruction of their own people, their own culture and the land that gives them life. People loyal to their traditions are a threat to colonialism. This is why it’s vital for them to be targets of superstitions, hatred and ultimately destruction. This is the case with the Twa, many of whom have been driven from their homelands by deforestation and resort to begging as their main source of income.

The militias also raid schools, capturing the students. The boys are turned into soldiers and the girls are turned into sex-slaves. What hope can a child raised into barbarism possibly have? And at this level, who can be blamed? Can a soldier committing unspeakable atrocities take the blame when he was forced to start killing or be killed at the age of five or ten? Can a prostitute take the blame when she was raped into submission before puberty? These are hard questions to answer when we think that the ones who forced this fate upon them were likely victims as children themselves.

On this level, what’s going on in the DRC doesn’t sound too much different from whats happening here on the streets of Chicago. It speaks to the vulnerability of all human beings. We are all at the mercy of those who come into the world before us. Whether they know it or not, the people who raise us in this world are the ones who can most easily lead us down the path of corruption. In the case of the Congo conflict, maybe even the warlords with the most blood on their hands have noble illusions about the good they are doing for themselves, their families or even their communities. The same can be said for the ones who fund the conflict.

No, evil does not have a face. It can take form in any one. There are the militias and their petty commanders who fight and kill for the right to exploit their neighbor and their land for the scraps off their masters’ table that are only just enough to enable them to keep fighting and killing. There are the puppet governments of the African countries that fund the militias. There is the UN which makes sure that no side is able to get strong enough to stand on its own. There are the corporations who purchase the minerals that the people of Central Merita are dying over. There are the corporations that make the products using these minerals. At the end of the chain is us, the consumers who are never satisfied with last year’s technology and feel our humanity is threatened when we have to go without our cell phones… No, evil does not have a face…

Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are often recruited by force to join the militias fighting each other for the Coltan in the region, fighting, killing, and dying to exploit their land and each other.

In my first conversation with Kambale, following an event hosted to raise consciousness about the Congo “conflict minerals,” the conversation turned to the salty fries we had eaten. A joke was made that it was probably conflict salt from the Congo. I remarked that wherever it was from, people probably were suffering so we could have it. Kambale’s insight was that it’s a serious problem that we don’t know how the table we were eating at was made or what it’s made from. It’s a serious problem that this is most likely the case for almost everything we own. Not only do we not know what it’s made of or how it’s made, but we also are ignorant to the conditions others are forced into in order for it to be made cheap and available to us at our convenience. This is the case for everything from our apples flown in fresh from New Zealand to our new smart phones. For this, we are just as guilty as the other parties involved in the conflict in the Congo and those like it around the world, those who, like us, are only following a pattern that we’re born into, a pattern of corruption. As we say at the Earth Center, corruption always goes downhill. It always takes the easy way, the path of least resistance.

Children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are often recruited by force to work in the mines.

For we who are interested in survival, it is our responsibility to avoid falling into these traps. It’s up to us to build the world that we want to see. For me to say how that will happen is not my place. The one thing I can say for sure is that it won’t be easy. Those of us committed to making the world better will have to start with ourselves, our habits, attitudes and behaviors. If we start by considering how another may have had to suffer for something that we have or can get, maybe we will reconsider taking more than what we need and wasting it. Maybe we will reconsider getting something new when what we already have is working fine. Maybe we will actively try to reduce our participation in the destruction of the world.

Next time we will continue our exploration of the history and background of the current situation in the Congo. Until then, let’s keep surviving and striving to become better each day than we were the last.

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