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Human cost of mining in DR Congo

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An investigation into the military exploitation of DR Congo's mines

By Karen Allen
BBC News, South Kivu

It was midnight when Elise and her husband were woken by armed men in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Soldiers of DR Congo's National Army burst into their shack, sent the husband into another room, and then raped the mother of five at gunpoint.

"They put their guns on my chest and said: 'Don't talk, don't cry, don't complain'… then they started to rape me," she said.

The perpetrators were not the feared militia of the FDLR, who are currently the focus of a major military operation in South Kivu.

They were from the FARDC - the National Army that now controls this area in eastern DR Congo.

It is an area carpeted with minerals such as coltan and cassiterite, which are used in the production of consumer durables and gadgets sold in the rich world.

But people are now beginning to ask: what is the human cost of a mobile phone?

Scarred for life

In Shabunda territory, where Elise was attacked, there have been 112 rapes reported since April, when the military operation started.

Miners
Miners, such as those above, are now exposed to predatory gunmen

These official figures are almost certainly just the tip of the iceberg, because most sexual crimes go unreported here.

Since 2006 there have been 2,883 recorded rapes in the Shabunda territory.

Many of the women have not only been sexually violated but physically scarred for life.

And Shabunda is just one territory out of eight in the province of South Kivu - a tiny pin-prick in this vast country.

"Sexual attacks peak when there's fighting," said Shabunda-based human rights activist Papy Bwalinga Kashama.

"The reason the military and militia are fighting is to control the mines," he said.

Civilians get caught in the middle. Control the men with guns who guard and earn tax from the mines, he argued, and you reduce the terrible violations endured by women.

It may sound simplistic, but he has a point.

Predatory militias

In the mining area of Nyabembe, rusting pieces of mining machinery poke out from a thick layer of grass.

Miner
Many jobs in South Kivu depend on the mining industry

They reflect a time in the mid-1970s, when commercial mining was carried out in this area - a two-and-a-half hour motorbike ride from the town of Lulingu.

Five years of civil war, followed by protracted skirmishes with the militia, saw those operations move out and freelance miners move in.

These men are now exposed to predatory militias and also the military who demand a cut from what they dig.

When they are not exacting local taxes, the gunmen move into the village and terrify the local population - stealing, killing and raping.

"They take what they want, even our women, and there is nothing we can do about it," sighed Simon, a young teacher who has swapped his school books for a shovel, because it is the only way to make a living.

Blood on their hands?

Global electronics and metals giants now face uncomfortable questions: Are they inadvertently fuelling the conflict in eastern DR Congo? Are they buttressing a market by sourcing supplies from militarised zones (a practice that is not illegal but ethically questionable)?

"There is nowhere and no-one we won't buy from," said Masumbuko Moari, who represents middlemen who supply to the big exporters.

He laughed when I suggested they might have blood on their hands as a result of buying from the men with guns.

"That's a political issue," he said, and our conversation ended.

With mining being the only game in town, radical change is bound to be resisted.

And that is the argument that international purchasers of minerals use, to justify their trade: so many jobs depend on it.

'Abnormal situation'

During a recent visit to South Kivu, DR Congo's Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito admitted to the BBC that there was a genuine problem about militarised mining.

Commercialising the mining sector is not a magic bullet, but it might be a start if the big operators are closely watched

"We want people and companies to be able to work in good conditions," he said. "Once the environment improves, the army won't be in a position to exploit the mines.

"It's an abnormal situation at the moment because the government doesn't have full control."

The Congolese government faces international pressure to address military exploitation of DR Congo's mines.

It claims to control 80% of the mines but if you are prepared to ride by motorbike for a few hours, or trek through the forests on foot, it is not hard to find mines in the hands of men with guns.

Under the wire

During US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to the country, grand statements were made to get the military out of the mines, but change requires clear political will.

Congolese gold miners, file pic
DR Congo's rich gold reserves have attracted foreign armies in the past

"We have to destroy the commercial circus of the mines, by reasserting the control of the state," said Mabolia Yenga, a mines trouble-shooter who advises DR Congo's ministry of mines.

Commercialising the mining sector is not a magic bullet, but it might be a start if the big operators are closely watched.

Mr Yenga believes that for minerals like coltan and cassiterite, a process of certification to ensure the mining does not fund violence - such as with the Kimberley process for diamonds - is long overdue.

But such a process would require input from DR Congo's neighbours, which act as transit points for illicit exports.

Neighbours such as Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda have long been accused of benefiting from DR Congo's mines, operating "under the wire" and gaining from the country's instability.

The Congolese government wants to invite mining companies back in and use the tax revenues from mining to rebuild this shattered country.

It is a hard message to sell to a population which has seen virtually no infrastructural growth from its mineral riches - simply war.

But it may be a small step to making mining more transparent in DR Congo. It may also help to ensure that some of the 1.8bn mobile phones in the world are a little "cleaner".



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