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Cell phone minerals fuel deadly Congo conflict

Sales of coltan, used in cell phones, fund rebel groups that continue brutalizing eastern Congo.

A miner scoops mud while digging an open pit at the Chudja mine in the Kilomoto concession near the village of Kobu, 62 miles from Bunia in northeastern Congo, Feb. 23, 2009. Civil conflict in Congo has been driven for more than a decade by the violent struggle for control over the country's vast natural resources, including gold, coltan, diamonds and timber, most of which is exploited using hard manual labour. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

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.”