The Heart of Bleakness
Sifting Through the Wreckage of Congo's Conflict Economy
By Jason Mojica
Photos by Tim Freccia
A member of the Mai Mai militia patrols his camp. Legend has it that the Mai Mai are shape-shifters who can fly and that bullets pass through them as if their bodies are made of water.
Walking through the jungle in the dead of night with a group of Rwandan rebels best known for their expertise at rape and murder wasn’t exactly what we had planned for our first trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. All we wanted was to make a little film about the controversy surrounding the so-called conflict minerals that make our cell phones work, drop a couple Conrad references, and drink a Primus. Just one Primus.
A week earlier, our team landed at N’Djili International Airport in the capital of Kinshasa, formerly Leopoldville. The place looks like it hasn’t had a scrub since Muhammad Ali dropped by for the Rumble in the Jungle in the early 1970s. After having our yellow-fever cards checked for the first time in our well-traveled lives, we ran a gauntlet of sweaty police officers and other officials—each with his own laundry list of infractions that we had apparently already committed. In an amazing stroke of luck, they were willing to overlook all these violations for a small fine, payable in person, to them.
We’d come to Congo to try to find out more about the developed world’s thirst for coltan, cassiterite, and the other colorfully named minerals that make the electronics industry go round. These are part of a group of natural resources that have been dubbed “conflict minerals” because of the alphabet soup of armed groups (FARDC, CNDP, FDLR, PARECO, etc.) who have found them a very portable and highly profitable way to fund their activities—which mostly consist of killing people. Since 1996, these guerrilla insurgencies have led to the deaths of more than 5 million people, and in one particularly horrific year—2006—the rape of approximately 400,000 women.
After giving up on ever seeing our luggage again, we stepped out onto the streets of Kinshasa. The city is probably the closest real-world equivalent of a zombie apocalypse—an oppressively hot, dusty, and decrepit landscape where somewhere between 7 and 10 million people try to eke out a living any way they can, whether that’s selling knotted plastic bags of water to the thousands of people caught in the never-ending snarl of traffic on the city’s crumbling roads, or the occasional late-night ambush of out-of-towners dumb enough to go walking around on their own.
It was difficult not to be rattled by the crushing poverty: amputees, shantytowns, and hustlers on every corner. We wondered, “How the hell does a place like this get to be a place like this?” Can you really just blame it all on “colonialism” like some dreadlocked freshman anthropology student? In this case… maybe you can.
In 1885, Leopold II of Belgium established the Congo Free State, a little project that involved stripping the Congo of its natural resources as fast as humanly possible. Actually, the king liked things to be done faster than humanly possible, and he motivated some of his “workforce” by chopping off their hands. Fortunately for Leo, his adventure in Congo happened to coincide with the advent of the automobile, which meant that manufacturers were clamoring for Congo’s plentiful supply of rubber. He managed to get very rich while halving the population, but soon a group of more-civilized Belgians reined in the king’s entrepreneurial activities and ran Congo as a colony that they felt they could be proud of. And why shouldn’t they be proud? When Congo took its first baby steps as an independent nation, in 1960, the Belgians had left the country with 16 college graduates, a military consisting of 25,000 low-ranking troops, and over half its population illiterate.
After we spent a few days in our own stink, our bags finally arrived and we were able to start our journey in earnest. We knew very little about Congo before we came, but the one thing that had been drilled into our heads was “do not fly on Congolese airlines.” Conventional wisdom says that between the beat-up Russian planes and their drunken Russian pilots, and the occasional crocodile in the overhead, if you fly a Congolese airline—you will die. But what else could we do? Walk? This is a country the size of western Europe, with the infrastructure of rural West Virginia. As it turned out, our Congolese Airline flight would be the most comfortable experience of the days that followed.
When we arrived in Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, the atmosphere was considerably better than in Kinshasa: cleaner air and nicer weather, and we were now working with a brilliant and brave Congolese fixer named Horeb and the veteran conflict photographer Tim Freccia. Having failed to prepare for the possibility of cold weather in Congo, we hit some secondhand-clothing shops in Goma (there did not appear to be any firsthand clothing shops), which were stuffed with donated fashions from the past few decades. We left for our journey into the mountains a few dollars lighter and one bootleg Wu Wear jacket richer.
Our crew piled into a Land Cruiser and rumbled toward a mining town called Numbi in South Kivu. We were told that the mines around Numbi were a good example of conflict-free mines: government-controlled, no rebels in sight.