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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.

Integration into the national army (the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or FARDC) is the aim of many of the rebels because as government soldiers they can continue their activities with virtual impunity.

When rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested last January, thousands of his fighters simply got new uniforms and carried on as before. In fact Nkunda's former rebels of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) since their integration into the Congo army have expanded their control over minerals and resources, according to the Enough report, U.N. experts and observers on the ground in eastern Congo.

“They didn’t integrate into the army, they took it over and now control huge parts of [the region],” a former diplomat told GlobalPost during a recent visit to Goma.

As dawn breaks in eastern Congo, clunky childlike wooden bicycles called "chukudus" careen down a dirt road one after the other loaded with sacks of "makala" (charcoal).

Their riders grin at their breakneck speed as they hurtle towards the city of Goma and the coal dust-covered market where the sacks sell for up to $35 each.

Charcoal sales bring in an estimated $30 million a year for armed groups that control the trade (including both the rebel FDLR and the national army) profiting from the exploitation of Congo’s impressive forests. That translates into a lot of guns and bullets and is reason
enough to keep fighting.

Another day and another misty Congolese dawn breaks over a landscape of muddy pits and stony hillsides where scores of men in ragged clothes, clutching little sacks pick through rocks by hand looking for lumps of dull gray coltan. The men who control the mine stand watch, AK47 rifles in hand, highlighting the coercive nature of the trade.

Dirty sacks full of the mineral are transported to towns such as Goma where "comptoirs" or trading houses prepare the minerals for sale to regional middlemen. From there the coltan enters the world market with multinational companies turning a blind eye to question marks over the minerals’ origins.

Charcoal finds its market among the benighted people themselves: The poorest have no option but to use this cheap fuel to cook food and boil water. At least that was the case until recently when the rangers in charge of protecting the wildlife of Virunga National Park introduced biomass briquettes as an alternative in a bid to remove the market.

But no one pretends that gold, tin or coltan finds its end users in Congo. Instead these minerals are worth fighting, killing, enslaving and raping for because rich foreign consumers want them.

As a recent review of a decade of resource exploitation in Congo published by Global Witness stated: “The illicit exploitation of natural resources in [Congo], and the accompanying serious human rights abuses, would not have taken place on such a large scale if there had not been customers willing to trade in these resources.”

And, of course, Western consumers eager to buy cell phones and other electronic gadgets that are made with the resources from them.