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Is There an End to DR Congo's Suffering?

The rebellion in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), which has spread to the South Kivu province, has caused the humanitarian situation in the country to deteriorate significantly, warned the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Human Rights Watch. The conflict in the DR Congo has already caused almost 6 million victims and caused enormous environmental damages.DR Congo. A relative holds a war-wounded patient's hand in a Goma hospital. (Photo: © ICRC / Phil Moore)

Behind the war in Congo are what are called “conflict minerals,” such as coltan. Coltan is the name for Columbite-tantalite, a black mineral found in great quantities in Congo, from which the elements niobium and tantalum are extracted. Coltan is a crucial element in creating devices that store energy, and which are used in a wide array of small electronic devices such as cell phones, laptop computers and prosthetic devices for humans. Once coltan is processed, then it is sold to big companies which use it to make their products. Although it is mined in several countries, Congo has large amounts of this mineral.

The prime exploiters of coltan in the Congo are Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, whose proxy militias are responsible for thousands of rapes and killings, part of a history of exploitation of natural resources such as coltan, cassiterite, wolframite and gold. In addition, the Congo has 30% of the world’s diamond reserves. To exploit more freely those resources, militias from those countries have conducted for years campaigns of intimidation, and brutal rapes and killings, leaving afterwards a terrorized local population.

Although Rwanda and Uganda possess little or no coltan, their exports escalated exponentially during the Congo war. For example, recorded coltan production in Rwanda increased from 50 tons in 1995 to 1,300 tons in 2001, when coltan was the biggest single export earner. Much of that increase was due to the fraudulent re-export of Congolese coltan. The Tantalum-Niobium International Study Centre in Belgium has asked international buyers to avoid buying Congolese coltan on ethical grounds. Because international dealers are under pressure not to buy from the DRC, however, they circumvent this prohibition by having Congolese coltan re-exported as Rwanda’s.

“The consequences of illegal exploitation have been twofold: (a) a massive availability of financial resources for the Rwandan Patriotic Army, and the individual enrichment of top Ugandan military commanders and civilians; (b) the emergence of illegal networks headed by either top military officers or businessmen,” noted a UN report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources.

The DRC has half of Africa’s forests and water resources. However, because of uncontrolled mining, the land in the DRC is being eroded and there is significant pollution of lakes and rivers.

To make matters even more troublesome, this war-ravaged country has a new emerging rebel group, known as March 23 or M23 Movement. While the government forces are being backed by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, rebel forces are backed by Uganda and Rwanda. All sides take advantage of the chaos reigning in the country to plunder its considerable natural resources. The conflict has resulted not only in the loss of millions of lives, but also on increased levels of disease and malnutrition, creating one of the worst health emergencies to unfold in Africa in recent times.

The M23 forces answer to Gen. Bosco “the Terminator” Ntaganda, who is a fugitive wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. He has been accused of rape, murder and child-soldier recruitment. Although his forces are trying to show that they can administer territory better than the central government in Kinshasa, many are skeptical of those claims. More significantly, there is widespread fear that the M23 forces will reignite a wider regional conflict.

Rwanda, which has been a key player in these events, has been charged by the UN and by Human Rights Watch of backing M23, and provoking an increase in tension between Rwanda and the DR Congo. Rwandan President Paul Kagame did not attend a recent regional meeting aimed at finding a solution to the continuous unrest in eastern Congo.

Without a concerted international effort aimed at curbing Rwanda’s support for rebel forces operating in eastern Congo, notably the M23 movement, there won’t be a solution to the DR Congo’s problems. It is time to stop the bloodletting of a country made poor by its own riches.