Over the past few days, Red Cross workers have been walking the streets of Goma on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo, picking up civilian bodies and burying them where they could find space. They’ve counted 62 so far. Meanwhile, soldiers from the M23 rebel group who took the town last week and likely killed the civilians looked on from their posts and clutched their assault rifles. Many of them are just teenagers and have never seen their country when it wasn’t at war with itself. That’s roughly as long as we spoiled brats in America have been carrying around expensive electronic gadgets like cell phones in our pockets. And yes, the two situations are very related.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of very few places on the planet with a dependable supply of rare earth elements. This group of hard-to-find metals is essential to the circuitry of cell phones, laptops and that flatscreen TV you never watch. In other words, they’re in high demand in the world’s wealthiest countries, and as a direct result, mining the metals is a lucrative business in Congo. And in the wartorn eastern part of the country, it’s rebel groups like M23 that are running them, using the money from mining to buy guns, bombs and probably bribes, too.
Using forced labor from nearby villages, rebel forces have taken over entire mountains, where they’ve found valuable minerals like coltan that they can sell to refineries over the border in Rwanda or Uganda. Sometimes, they’ll sell the minerals directly to agents from China, a country that’s sitting on the majority of the world’s rare earth elements but would still rather buy them more cheaply from warlords in central Africa.
It would be a little bit too simplistic to say that the Congolese rebels were only fighting over rare earth elements. The land under their feet is also rich with gold and diamond deposits, not to mention the forests full of timber. The problem that’s tearing the country apart and keeping warlords in a steady supply of soliders, however, are more complicated than a mere battle over control of the country’s natural resources, though those resources help keep the soldiers supplied with weapons and food.
- See our documentary on Congo’s mining problems:
This latest flare up of violence, for instance, can be traced back to April, when a faction mostly made up of ethnic Tutsis defected from the Congolese army. They called themselves the March 23 Movement, referring to the date that a peace accord between Congo’s government and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) was signed. The accord was supposed to integrate CNDP soldiers into the Congolese army, where they would be benefit from hierarchical structure and, perhaps more importantly, salaries. This never happened, M23 says, and so the soldiers went rogue.
This sort of thing seems to happen every couple of years in Congo, and it’s ugly every time. The rebel armies head to the east, away from Kinshasa, the country’s capital, and towards the main deposits of rare earth elements and gold. (Fun fact: Rare earth elements aren’t actually that rare. They’re about as common as any other mineral in the Earth’s crust, but they’re typically difficult to mine in all but a few places on the planet.) The rebels are known to raid entire communities and force the villagers to work in the mines for little or no pay. At the mines, the civilians are subjected to widespread abuse and backbreaking hours. Women are regularly raped. And the slightest bit of protest can get a worker killed, his body dumped in the jungle for nobody to find.
It’s no wonder the rebel armies send people running. The United Nations estimates that this latest conflict in eastern Congo has displaced over 140,000 civilians, many of who cut and run at the first sign of a rebel army raid, though that number could be as high as 800,000. Meanwhile, everyone’s praying that the conflict doesn’t escalate to levels seen during the First and Second Congo Wars, which occurred in the late 90s and claimed the lives of an estimated 5.4 million people. Nearly half of those killed were children younger than five years old. Even years after the wars were officially over, people continued to die at an alarming rate of 45,000 per day.
In the couple of years, there’s been a proactive however tardy campaign to quell the resource-related violence in the Congo. Activists have been taking electronics companies, who make up much of the demand for rare earth metals, to town for buying rare earth metals from the region. The Enough Project, one of the more visible and well-funded of Congo activist groups, is known for protesting on Apple’s doorstep around the times of their insane product launches, and has even been successful in recruiting celebrities to star in public service announcements on YouTube.
“Apple is claiming that their products don’t contain conflict minerals because their suppliers say so,” Jonathan Hutson of the Enough Project told The New York Times a couple years ago. “People are saying that answer is not good enough. That’s why there’s this grass-roots movement, so that we as consumers can choose to buy conflict free.” Of course, Apple is hardly the only electronics manufacturer, even if it is a high-profile one. The organization is more broadly focused on eradicating genocide from the region and points to cutting off rebel factions from the profits of selling rare earth metals as a way to make progress.
For now, things are looking better for the people of Goma. The M23 soldiers started pulling out of the city on Wednesday and say they’re open to peace talks but only if President Joseph Kabila will consider their demands and his soldiers behave themselves. “We want peace,” Makenga said. “We’re prepared for the return of government troops, they’re going to come … But if Kabila’s troops harass the people we’re prepared to come back in, we’re just around the corner.”