Video: Congo Uncovering the truth
Credit: Friends of the Congo
Article report credits: Ross Domoney, Diane Taylor, Michael Tait and Christian Bennett.
Congo: Blood, gold and mobile phones. Rape victims in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are being forced to work in conditions of slavery in mines producing the gold, coltan and tin ore needed to manufacture jewellery, mobile phones and laptops, a Guardian investigation has found.
The girls and women fled their villages after being raped by one or more of the militias terrorising the region. Traditionally the women were engaged in farming but their fields are in forests occupied by rebels and growing food has become too dangerous. Instead they are forced into exploitative work in mines to survive.
“If you choose to get food from the field you have to accept that you’re going to be raped,” said Patience Kengwa, 30, who works at Kamituga gold mine. She fled her village, Luliba, after being raped five times in two and a half years. Now she pounds rocks and carries heavy sacks, earning between 50 cents and a dollar a day.
Dominique Bikaba, director of Strong Roots, an environmental charity that works with miners to improve their conditions, has condemned the situation.
“These girls and women are working in the mines in conditions of slavery. They earn less than a dollar a day and are often forced to work harder than they are physically capable of working,” he said.
Various militias have been fighting each other in east Congo for more than a decade, raping and looting with impunity. The greed for Congo’s vast mineral wealth has made the situation worse. Even the UN mission in Congo, Monusco, which has 19,000 peacekeepers costing $1.4bn (£8.7m) a year, is implicated in illegal practices involving minerals.
Recently, a UN truck carrying a tonne of cassiterite was stopped by the Congolese authorities trying to cross the border from Congo to Rwanda. The UN has confirmed that it is investigating.
Congo’s mineral resources are estimated at $24tn, more than the combined GDP of Europe and America.
According to Bikaba, 98% of east Congo’s mines have some involvement with one militia or another – either they militia control mines and coerce people to work in them or demand “taxes” from workers.
East Congo was recently described as one of the worst places on earth to be a woman after a study in June by the American Journal of Public Health found that 1,152 women are raped every day in the African state, equating to a rate of 48 an hour. The perpetrators include the mainly Hutu Rwandan rebel group FDLR, a rival rebel group comprised mainly of Tutsis called CNDP, Congolese soldiers and the local Congolese Mai Mai militia.
The CNDP and some Mai Mai have now “integrated” into the Congolese army but many women have reported an increase rather than a decrease in rapes by the army, post-integration of rebel groups.
In a cruel twist some of the women kidnapped and raped by rebels are forced to pay a ransom before they are released. The money funds more weapons that are used to terrorise more women.
East Congo’s problems with Rwandan fighters began in the years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The arrival of the rebel forces coincided with the explosion of the west’s appetite for mobile phones, computers and other electronic equipment. Gold, always a precious metal, is continually increasing in value. The Foreign Office has named gold, coltan, tungsten and cassiterite (tin ore) from east Congo as conflict minerals.
The US government has passed legislation requiring electronics companies to verify and disclose the sources of the minerals used in electronic and other products. Its aim is to prevent manufacturers using minerals from east Congo, which have been extracted in circumstances involving human rights abuses. The securities and exchange commission has issued far-reaching draft regulations to implement the US’s conflict minerals law. An announcement confirming the draft regulations was expected this week but, to the dismay of many human rights groups working in east Congo, it has been delayed.
The women working in the mines want to see a return to the peaceful lives they led in the early 1990s.
“The FDLR need to be taken back to Rwanda. When they attack us we have no idea how to defend ourselves,” said Kengwa.
Yvonne Starko, 25, who works at a cassiterite mine in Kalehe, fled rape in her home village of Ramba 100km away, in August 2008 and has been forced to work at the mine to feed her three children.
“I’m not healthy because I have to pound rocks and carry the heavy sacks at the mines. I’ve become weak and have lost weight. I came here as a refugee because there’s food here. I work to get money but there are bandits who steal it from me so at the end of the day I sometimes go home with nothing and my children stay hungry.”
While the rebels, the mineral traders and those higher up the supply chain profit from the unregulated, lawless mining conditions in the region, the enslaved women continue to suffer. They believe that their lives would be much better if Congo had no minerals. Elizabeth Wabiwa, 24, was rejected by her husband after she was raped by FDLR rebels.
“I wish we had no gold and no other minerals. I just want peace and my husband back, that’s all.”