Walking through the jungle in the dead of night with a group of Rwandan rebels best known for their expertise at rape and murder wasn’t exactly what we had planned for our first trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. All we wanted was to make a little film about the controversy surrounding the so-called conflict minerals that make our cell phones work, drop a couple Conrad references, and drink a Primus. Just one Primus.
A week earlier, our team landed at N’Djili International Airport in the capital of Kinshasa, formerly Leopoldville. The place looks like it hasn’t had a scrub since Muhammad Ali dropped by for the Rumble in the Jungle in the early 1970s. After having our yellow-fever cards checked for the first time in our well-traveled lives, we ran a gauntlet of sweaty police officers and other officials—each with his own laundry list of infractions that we had apparently already committed. In an amazing stroke of luck, they were willing to overlook all these violations for a small fine, payable in person, to them.
We’d come to Congo to try to find out more about the developed world’s thirst for coltan, cassiterite, and the other colorfully named minerals that make the electronics industry go round. These are part of a group of natural resources that have been dubbed “conflict minerals” because of the alphabet soup of armed groups (FARDC, CNDP, FDLR, PARECO, etc.) who have found them a very portable and highly profitable way to fund their activities—which mostly consist of killing people. Since 1996, these guerrilla insurgencies have led to the deaths of more than 5 million people, and in one particularly horrific year—2006—the rape of approximately 400,000 women.
After giving up on ever seeing our luggage again, we stepped out onto the streets of Kinshasa. The city is probably the closest real-world equivalent of a zombie apocalypse—an oppressively hot, dusty, and decrepit landscape where somewhere between 7 and 10 million people try to eke out a living any way they can, whether that’s selling knotted plastic bags of water to the thousands of people caught in the never-ending snarl of traffic on the city’s crumbling roads, or the occasional late-night ambush of out-of-towners dumb enough to go walking around on their own.
It was difficult not to be rattled by the crushing poverty: amputees, shantytowns, and hustlers on every corner. We wondered, “How the hell does a place like this get to be a place like this?” Can you really just blame it all on “colonialism” like some dreadlocked freshman anthropology student? In this case… maybe you can.
In 1885, Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State, a little project that involved stripping the Congo of its natural resources as fast as humanly possible. Actually, the king liked things to be done faster than humanly possible, and he motivated some of his “workforce” by chopping off their hands. Fortunately for Leo, his adventure in Congo happened to coincide with the advent of the automobile, which meant that manufacturers were clamoring for Congo’s plentiful supply of rubber. He managed to get very rich while halving the population, but soon a group of more-civilized Belgians reined in the king’s entrepreneurial activities and ran Congo as a colony that they felt they could be proud of. And why shouldn’t they be proud? When Congo took its first baby steps as an independent nation, in 1960, the Belgians had left the country with 16 college graduates, a military consisting of 25,000 low-ranking troops, and over half its population illiterate.
After we spent a few days in our own stink, our bags finally arrived and we were able to start our journey in earnest. We knew very little about Congo before we came, but the one thing that had been drilled into our heads was “do not fly on Congolese airlines.” Conventional wisdom says that between the beat-up Russian planes and their drunken Russian pilots, and the occasional crocodile in the overhead, if you fly a Congolese airline—you will die. But what else could we do? Walk? This is a country the size of western Europe, with the infrastructure of rural West Virginia. As it turned out, our Congolese Airline flight would be the most comfortable experience of the days that followed.
When we arrived in Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, the atmosphere was considerably better than in Kinshasa: cleaner air and nicer weather, and we were now working with a brilliant and brave Congolese fixer named Horeb and the veteran conflict photographer Tim Freccia. Having failed to prepare for the possibility of cold weather in Congo, we hit some secondhand-clothing shops in Goma (there did not appear to be any firsthand clothing shops), which were stuffed with donated fashions from the past few decades. We left for our journey into the mountains a few dollars lighter and one bootleg Wu Wear jacket richer.
Our crew piled into a Land Cruiser and rumbled toward a mining town called Numbi in South Kivu. We were told that the mines around Numbi were a good example of conflict-free mines: government-controlled, no rebels in sight.
When we arrived at the mine trailed by a few local government minders, there were in fact no rebels in sight. Government troops were also nowhere to be found. No child laborers, either. In fact, there were no laborers of any kind—the place was empty. Evidently, the West’s sudden concern about the money trail of the Congo’s mineral trade had folks around these parts spooked. A provision in the recently enacted Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, requires American companies to disclose their use of “conflict minerals,” which is basically like asking them if they still beat their wives. In anticipation of the new rules, big corporations have simply avoided purchasing minerals from Congo altogether. Congolese sales of tin ore—used to solder circuit boards together—fell more than 90 percent in May alone.
We decided to ditch our minders and get an unvarnished look at an active site by spending the night in Numbi and sneaking out at the crack of dawn. Consequently, we had to climb to an altitude inhospitable to city folk. As we tried to keep ourselves from vomiting, we wondered if it was really necessary for us to personally see where coltan comes from.
After reaching the summit, we looked down on a shockingly primitive scene—workers wielding pickaxes and shovels, sifting soil through their callused hands. It’s something they call “artisanal mining,” which kind of makes it sound like the work of snooty craftsmen who wax their mustaches. In reality, it’s a bunch of mud-caked guys in galoshes hacking at the earth for $3 a day. If they’re lucky.
This was mining in the eastern Congo on a good day, when the country is ostensibly at peace. But should fighting break out again, conditions will rapidly shift from primitive to barbarous, as different groups of very patriotic armed men with a strong interest in minerals move into the area.
For the time being, these rebel groups have been pushed deep into the bush and are held at bay by joint military operations conducted by the UN and FARDC—Congo’s poorly paid and poorly organized armed forces.
Naturally, after hearing so much about these armed groups and how our addiction to Twitter was somehow enabling their murderous tendencies, we wanted to meet them. So Horeb and Tim pulled some strings and managed to make contact with a Mai Mai group in North Kivu known as the Patriotic Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo (APCLS) and led by General Janvier Buingo Karairi. The term Mai Mai is shorthand for the wide assortment of local militias in eastern Congo who have collectively terrorized the region over the past decade, frequently accused (but rarely convicted) of employing child soldiers and massacring and raping civilians in Katanga’s “triangle of death.” The Mai Mai claim to possess superhuman powers, say that bullets pass through their bodies as if through water, and, if the situation warrants, that they can morph into animals. They are the African-guerrilla version of the Wonder Twins.
The notion of heading into the dense Congolese jungle in search of superpowered Mai Mai was terrifying enough without the local UN troops upping the ante by politely asking us to copy down our personal information, specifically our passport numbers. It was, they insisted, “just a formality”—one that would assist American embassy officials in figuring out where to pick up our mutilated corpses.
In Africa, you have to be careful what you ask for. As we wound our way through the humid jungle, in what immediately felt like our own Bataan death march, we encountered—you guessed it—a group of armed men. But when it became clear that our fearless fixer and his armed interlocutor were each speaking a different language, we realized that these guys were not the local militia we were trying to locate, but members of the FDLR, a group of Rwandan Hutu rebels far from home.
We stood around trying to act casual, avoiding eye contact with a group of soldiers who appeared too young to remember the 1994 Rwandan genocide upon which the group was built. Meanwhile, one of them radioed ahead to Hutu troops at a camp down the road to allow us safe passage through their territory—and to visit a guerrilla group that, we’d thought, were avowed enemies of the FDLR.
Things didn’t become any more clear when we finally met the Mai Mai and sat down with General Janvier. One of his group’s primary demands is that all Rwandans leave Congolese soil immediately. So why did Rwandan FDLR troops escort us to his camp? How did General Janvier’s Rwandan secretary feel about that? You might find this strange, but as we sat there surrounded by Janvier’s men… well, we didn’t really feel like asking those questions.
VICE cofounder Suroosh Alvi asked General Janvier what he thought about the world’s addiction to electronic devices—and, necessarily, coltan. The general was forthright at first and said that the average Congolese citizen does not benefit from mineral extraction, which was “one of the reasons why we are fighting.” He seemed to imply that if the Mai Mai controlled the mines, they would redistribute the wealth. But when asked to expand on the issue, the general played coy, saying that minerals “may be around here… but we don’t dig,” flatly denying that his fighters have any sort of interest in the mineral trade.
Congo is a complicated place, but not so complicated that we should write it off.
It’s easy to pin the country’s problems on the past—the Belgian colonialists, kleptocratic rulers, and grievances with neighboring nations—but that doesn’t make any of them go away. Maybe if we demand conflict-free electronics the rebel groups will simply melt away into the jungle, or maybe we’ll only succeed in making the poorest country in the world a little poorer.