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Last Updated: Friday, 3 June 2005, 07:45 GMT 08:45 UK
On the trail of DR Congo's 'cursed' gold
By Will Ross
BBC News, Mongbwalu

Richard, gold miner
The nugget of gold will help Richard feed his family

In the town of Mongbwalu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Richard is all smiles as he shows me a small flake of gold balanced on the tip of his finger.

He has just found it after sieving mud and sand for the whole morning.

The gold, which he wraps up in the metal foil from a cigarette packet, is worth less than $10 (5.50) but it will provide food for his family.

DR Congo is rich in precious minerals such as diamonds and gold - but its people have gained little from this wealth because of conflict and bad government.

A new report by Human Rights Watch says gold deposits in the volatile north-east of the country have been the catalyst for much of the conflict in the area.

Much of the gold is sent to Uganda which has, as a result, become a significant exporter of the precious metal. The gold trail I am following to Uganda begins back in Mongbwalu, in DR Congo's Ituri district.

Dangerous work

Thousands of miners work here in muddy pits, extracting sand, mud and rocks in the search for gold.

But they are not getting rich and their work is risky.

The disused, often flooded industrial mines are the most dangerous. Days before I visited Mongbwalu, two men had died because of a lack of oxygen in one such mine.

Mongbwalu is a beautiful, fertile hilly area. But the presence of gold has given it a violent history.

The New York based Human Rights Watch says 2,000 civilians were killed during 2002 and 2003 as rival militias fought for control of the mines.

Children near mine
Poverty forces many children to work in Mongbwalu's mines

Mongbwalu changed hands five times in that period and tens of thousands of people fled their homes.

Much of the fighting was along ethnic lines as civilians were targeted for being either from the Hema or the Lendu ethnic group.

In its just released report entitled The Curse Of Gold, Human Rights Watch documents massacres, arrests, torture, forced labour and summary executions by various armed groups.

The last bloody battle for control of Mongbwalu was two years ago when the Nationalist and Integrationist Front, FNI, took control.

This ethnic Lendu militia set up committees to oversee the mining.

The FNI has started to disarm under DR Congo's fragile peace process but many fighters are still in the bush.

With virtually no Kinshasa government representation in Mongbwalu, the mines seem to be still under the control of the FNI which benefits from taxes.

Child miners

Before returning to the bottom of a 15-metre hole which he has dug by hand, James tells me that last month he found 10g of gold worth $130.

However, the authorities took a hefty $50 slice.

At a disused industrial mine which still attracts plenty of labour, a notice informs the miners of the mandatory $1 daily fee.

Using a plank of wood and a towel, 13-year-old Olobo sieves for gold.

He tells me he does not make much money, as the owner usually takes whatever he finds.

He just gets enough to buy food and other essentials.

Olobo says his parents don't have the money to send him to school so he is either at home or mining.

Border deals

A 20-minute helicopter ride away is the town of Bunia, close to the Ugandan border.

The roads are so poor, the same journey takes at least a day by car.

Just off the main road I enter a tiny shop which has just enough room for a simple desk, with a calculator and some scales.

Children inside goldmine
Conditions inside the disused mines can often be dangerous

There is a steady flow of customers and the on the day I visit almost $3,000 worth of gold has been bought.

The buyer, Ali Madingaka, tells me there are hundreds of similar shops and homes in Bunia where such transactions are taking place.

Bunia is just one of several gold-buying towns in north-eastern DR Congo.

When he has collected several thousand dollars worth of gold, Ali flies to Uganda, which is exactly where I am heading.

Foreign markets

Uganda's link with gold has often been controversial.

The Ugandan army for several years had a presence in eastern DR Congo and was accused of looting its neighbours' resources - an accusation it denies.

Human Rights Watch says in one area under Ugandan army control in 1999, Ugandan soldiers insisted, against geologists' advice, on using dynamite to extract the ore. As a result the mine collapsed.

Mr Lodhia
Mr Lodhia says he is not aware the gold may benefit militia groups

Human Rights Watch says 100 miners died.

The soldiers may not be there now but the Ugandan-DR Congo gold link is very much alive.

In a small workshop in a residential suburb of Kampala, I meet JV Lodhia of Uganda Commercial Impex - one of a handful of gold exporters in the Ugandan capital.

Within a few minutes he has turned a small dish of gold flakes into a finger-sized gold bar worth around $1,000.

Mr Lodhia says he exports between two to three tonnes of gold a year - most has come from neighbouring DR Congo and is destined for Switzerland or South Africa.

He admits that the gold he buys is in effect smuggled out of DR Congo and does not have any official certification.

Mr Lodhia tells me he has not visited Mongbwalu and says he has no information to suggest the gold trade could be benefiting the Congolese militias.

'Threat to peace'

Despite the lack of regulation of Uganda's gold imports from DR Congo, the Ugandan government seems happy with the trade.

Uganda Commercial Impex Ltd and another Kampala-based firm, Machanga Ltd, were honoured in the latest Presidential Export Awards.

Gold mine in DR Congo
Human Rights Watch wants to cut the link between gold and guns

A limited amount of gold mining does take place in Uganda, but a recent leap in Uganda's gold exports is the result of imported gold from DR Congo.

Official government statistics show that last year Uganda exported over $61m worth of gold - that's more than five tonnes, and almost 10 times as much as it was exporting in 1998.

But Mr Lodhia may have trouble finding a buyer.

A Swiss-based gold refining company, Matalor Technologies, says it has now suspended gold imports from Uganda following United Nations and Human Rights Watch investigations into the gold trade in DR Congo.

Thousands of miners in DR Congo are getting enough money to feed their families.

But Human Rights Watch says a fragile peace process there risks failure - unless serious attempts are made to cut the link between conflict and gold mining.

The rights group concludes that Congolese citizens deserve to benefit from the country's resources, not be cursed by them.

Gold rush fuels DR Congo's pain
01 Jun 05 |  Africa
Clashes near DR Congo gold mine
09 Jul 04 |  Africa
Q&A: DR Congo conflict
15 Dec 04 |  Africa

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