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Congo's latest war fueled by sales of "conflict minerals"

Rebel FDLR and Congo army both financed by income from coltan and other minerals.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — The tropical rain turns Goma’s lava-blackened streets to slurry as thick grey storm clouds thunder overhead.

For hours the city is on pause as its hawkers and traders, soldiers and civilians shelter from the relentless downpour. Then the rain stops and the streets burst to life again.

A year ago this chaotic lakeside city lived in fear. It was on the brink of being overrun by a rebel army made up of ethnic Tutsi fighters supported with arms, money and volunteers from neighboring Rwanda.

Goma is no longer under siege but the surrounding countryside of the eastern Congo remains embattled. It is a complicated war that includes rebel groups, warlords, ethnic enmities and United Nations forces. Currently the Congo army and the United Nations are fighting together against the rebels of the FDLR.

The FDLR rebels of eastern Congo.
FDLR rebels in eastern Congo.
(Jan-Joseph Stok/GlobalPost)

The background to these military offensives is the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The territory being fought over contains valuable mines from which all sides are getting the money to fund the war. Those suffering the most are the people of eastern Congo. 

The current war started early this year after the arrest of dissident Congolese general Laurent Nkunda. At the height of his power Nkunda — tall and slim, bespectacled and clutching a silver-topped cane — was the world’s most recognizable warlord.

But in January an unexpected detente between the presidents of Rwanda and Congo, Paul Kagame and Joseph Kabila, led to Nkunda’s arrest in Rwanda and subsequent house arrest in the Rwandan capital Kigali.

In return for taking Nkunda out of play, Kagame was given the opportunity send troops into eastern Congo and hunt down the FDLR, a rebel group made up of ethnic Hutu fighters who he blames for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days of low-tech slaughter.

The current fighting in eastern Congo can be traced back to Rwanda’s 1996 invasion of its larger neighbour in a bid to revenge itself on these "genocidaires." The International Rescue Committee (IRC), an American aid organization, blames the fighting since then for the
deaths of more than 5 million people in the region, mostly from disease and malnutrition.

A five-week joint Rwandan-Congolese operation began in January and was followed by another U.N.-backed Congolese operation that started in March. The aim of both "Umoja Wetu" and "Kimia II" was to disarm the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (known by its French acronym, FDLR).

But after months of jungle skirmishes and village battles that have displaced a fifth of the population, left hundreds of civilians dead and thousands of women raped, the FDLR is no closer to being defeated.

The reasons why are explained in a report compiled by a panel of U.N. investigators and that has been obtained by GlobalPost.

According to the report a series of businessmen in Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda are trading with the FDLR to transport valuable minerals out of their territory and bring deadly weapons in. The tin ore, gold, diamonds and coltan (used in mobile phones) illegally dug from the earth of eastern Congo are exported and end up in western consumer electronic goods.