Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Saturday, 2 May 2009 12:08 UK

Mining a mint in eastern DR Congo

Stephen Sackur discovers that life for most people in the troubled eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is still grindingly tough, but that a few individuals are doing very well for themselves.

Aeriel view of mines
Mining for cassiterite tin ore and coltan is a lucrative business

There was no danger of me oversleeping in Room 50 of the Ihusi, one of Goma's poshest hotels.

Every morning dawn would bring with it an intrusive chorus - "Uhnnff! Nnhhuurr!"

It was the unmistakeable sound of a tennis player suffering from 'gruntitis' - unable to strike the ball without exclamations fit to wake the dead.

By day four of my stay, I could stand this wake-up call no longer.

I dressed and marched out to what is almost certainly the finest clay tennis court in eastern Congo.

Mr Big

Stephen Sackur
Three part series presented by Stephen Sackur on DR Congo
Monday 4 May to Wednesday 6 May, 2009
BBC News Channel and BBC World

I expected to find two expatriates - perhaps senior officers from the UN peacekeeping force - giving a passable impression of Nadal versus Murray.

Instead I found a couple of locals on court. One was clearly the tennis coach, he had an air of weary resignation.

The other was the grunter - a mountainous man, wider than a barn door and significantly less mobile.

Who was this local Mr Big? I made enquiries around the hotel and was told he was a wealthy businessman.

What kind of business? This was met with a smile and a shrug. "Just business - there are many ways to make money here in Goma."

Airborne mules

Beyond the confines of the Ihusi hotel sprawls one of the most wretched cities on earth - devoid of paved roads, clean water and electricity. It is overlooked by an active volcano, and filled to bursting with people traumatised by years of war - but there are indeed many ways to make money in Goma.

The most obvious clue comes from the skies.

Throughout the day propeller planes swoop low over the city as they prepare for landing at the ramshackle airport.

These are not passenger planes, they are airborne mules laden with mineral rich rock from eastern Congo's remote mines.

Cassiterite tin ore and coltan, the metal used in the innards of mobile phones, make for a lucrative business.

Lucrative, that is, for the warlords and militias who control most of the mines, and for the middle men, the so-called comptoirs, who buy the ore, process it and sell it on around the world.

UN troops
The UN is in danger of becoming part of the problem, not the solution

John Konyoni, a designer-suited, BMW driving comptoir invited me into his compound.

With wireless laptop in hand he showed me how he could make trades in real-time on the London Metals Exchange, even as his men braved choking dust to grade the cassiterite ore in a mechanical jigger.

Mr Konyoni is an ethnic Tutsi. Members of his family were killed in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 by Hutu extremists.

And yet he acknowledged that some of those same Hutu extremists finance their military operations in eastern Congo by controlling local mines.

"So, are these blood minerals you're trading?" I asked him.

"No," he said with a relaxed smile. "That's a Western exaggeration."

Konyoni's business had a turnover of $20m (£13m) last year - he can afford to be relaxed.

Truth is, wherever you look in Goma the resourceful and the ruthless are thriving amid endemic poverty and violence.

Just down the rutted road from the Ihusi hotel is a lakeside neighbourhood of newly built villas surrounded by high walls and rolls of barbed wire.

I was taken there by my local fixer who assured me that rents for the biggest houses had just topped $10,000 (£6,500).

"A year?" I added helpfully - "No, a month," he scoffed.

Who on earth pays that sort of money, I asked. The United Nations, he said.

Broken city


The UN mission in Congo, Monuc, is the biggest, most expensive international peacekeeping operation in the world.

But after nine years trying to keep a lid on Congo's ethnic, economic and cross-border conflicts the UN is in danger of becoming part of the problem, not the solution.

Yes, blue-helmeted troops patrol Goma's fetid streets, and international aid workers do sterling humanitarian work, but the international community lacks a strategy for fixing this failing state.

UN troops have not forced the warlords out of the mines. In fact UN commanders find themselves in uneasy partnership with a Congolese army notorious for its corruption and abuse of human rights.

Monuc's military chief told me, somewhat sheepishly, that the UN is now feeding Congolese troops - it is the only way to stop them looting their own population.

Goma, in short, is a place where normal rules do not apply. A broken city where no-one seems inclined to fix the nightmarish status-quo.

A final image from the Ihusi hotel sticks in my mind. The hotel tennis court, just by Room 50, a sprinkler sending a fine spray of water over the clay one hot afternoon. Just to make it perfect for Mr Big in the morning.

Stephen Sackur reports from Congo in HARDtalk on the Road on both BBC World and the BBC News Channel from Monday 4 to Wednesday 6 December. See the programme schedules.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 2 May, 2009 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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