How We Fuel Africa's Bloodiest War

What is rarely mentioned is the great global heist of Congo's resources

The deadliest war since Adolf Hitler marched across Europe is
starting again -- and you are almost certainly carrying a blood-soaked
chunk of the slaughter in your pocket. When we glance at the holocaust
in Congo, with 5.4 million dead, the cliches of Africa reporting tumble
out: this is a "tribal conflict" in "the Heart of Darkness". It isn't.
The United Nations investigation found it was a war led by "armies of
business" to seize the metals that make our 21st-century society zing
and bling. The war in Congo is a war about you.

Every day I think about the people I met in the war zones of eastern Congo
when I reported from there. The wards were filled with women who had been
gang-raped by the militias and shot in the vagina. The battalions of child
soldiers -- drugged, dazed 13-year-olds who had been made to kill members of
their own families so they couldn't try to escape and go home. But oddly, as
I watch the war starting again on CNN, I find myself thinking about a woman
I met who had, by Congolese standards, not suffered in extremis.

I was driving back to Goma from a diamond mine one day when my car got a
puncture. As I waited for it to be fixed, I stood by the roadside and
watched the great trails of women who stagger along every road in eastern
Congo, carrying all their belongings on their backs in mighty crippling
heaps. I stopped a 27-year-old woman called Marie-Jean Bisimwa, who had
four little children toddling along beside her. She told me she was lucky.
Yes, her village had been burned out. Yes, she had lost her husband
somewhere in the chaos. Yes, her sister had been raped and gone insane. But
she and her kids were alive.

I gave her a lift, and it was only after a few hours of chat along on cratered
roads that I noticed there was something strange about Marie-Jean's
children. They were slumped forward, their gazes fixed in front of them.
They didn't look around, or speak, or smile. "I haven't ever been able
to feed them," she said. "Because of the war."

Their brains hadn't developed; they never would now. "Will they get
better?" she asked. I left her in a village on the outskirts of Goma,
and her kids stumbled after her, expressionless.

There are two stories about how this war began -- the official story, and the
true story. The official story is that after the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu
mass murderers fled across the border into Congo. The Rwandan government
chased after them. But it's a lie. How do we know? The Rwandan government
didn't go to where the Hutu genocidaires were, at least not at first. They
went to where Congo's natural resources were -- and began to pillage them.
They even told their troops to work with any Hutus they came across. Congo
is the richest country in the world for gold, diamonds, coltan, cassiterite,
and more. Everybody wanted a slice -- so six other countries invaded.

These resources were not being stolen to for use in Africa. They were seized
so they could be sold on to us. The more we bought, the more the invaders
stole -- and slaughtered. The rise of mobile phones caused a surge in deaths,
because the coltan they contain is found primarily in Congo. The UN named
the international corporations it believed were involved: Anglo-America,
Standard Chartered Bank, De Beers and more than 100 others. (They all deny
the charges.) But instead of stopping these corporations, our governments
demanded that the UN stop criticising them.

There were times when the fighting flagged. In 2003, a peace deal was finally
brokered by the UN and the international armies withdrew. Many continued to
work via proxy militias -- but the carnage waned somewhat. Until now. As with
the first war, there is a cover-story, and the truth. A Congolese militia
leader called Laurent Nkunda -- backed by Rwanda -- claims he needs to protect
the local Tutsi population from the same Hutu genocidaires who have been
hiding out in the jungles of eastern Congo since 1994. That's why he is
seizing Congolese military bases and is poised to march on Goma.

It is a lie. Francois Grignon, Africa Director of the International Crisis
Group, tells me the truth: "Nkunda is being funded by Rwandan
businessmen so they can retain control of the mines in North Kivu. This is
the absolute core of the conflict. What we are seeing now is beneficiaries
of the illegal war economy fighting to maintain their right to exploit."

At the moment, Rwandan business interests make a fortune from the mines they
illegally seized during the war. The global coltan price has collapsed, so
now they focus hungrily on cassiterite, which is used to make tin cans and
other consumer disposables. As the war began to wane, they faced losing
their control to the elected Congolese government -- so they have given it
another bloody kick-start.

Yet the debate about Congo in the West -- when it exists at all -- focuses on
our inability to provide a decent bandage, without mentioning that we are
causing the wound. It's true the 17,000 UN forces in the country are
abysmally failing to protect the civilian population, and urgently need to
be super-charged. But it is even more important to stop fuelling the war in
the first place by buying blood-soaked natural resources. Nkunda only has
enough guns and grenades to take on the Congolese army and the UN because we
buy his loot. We need to prosecute the corporations buying them for abetting
crimes against humanity, and introduce a global coltan-tax to pay for a
substantial peacekeeping force. To get there, we need to build an
international system that values the lives of black people more than it
values profit.

Somewhere out there -- lost in the great global heist of Congo's resources --
are Marie-Jean and her children, limping along the road once more, carrying
everything they own on their backs. They will probably never use a
coltan-filled mobile phone, a cassiterite-smelted can of beans, or a gold
necklace -- but they may yet die for one.

To save the lives of the victims of Congo's sexual violence, you can donate
money here

To read more of Johann's reporting on Congo, click here

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