After he finished shooting The VICE Guide to Congo, Suroosh Alvi had a chat with Fidel Bafilemba, a field researcher for the US-based Enough project, about the wild world of conflict minerals and the rebels who love them. They met at the Ihusi, a picturesque hotel situated on Lake Kivu and the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. This serene setting—a popular hangout for NGO workers, journalists, and Goma’s business elite —is a stark contrast to the violence and disarray just outside its gates.
VICE: Fidel, do you think America’s obsession with technology—specifically the tech boom of the last 10 to 15 years—has affected Congo?
Fidel Bafilemba: It’s sad that the USA, which is the democratic father of the world, ignores human rights while scrambling for Congolese minerals. That’s very sad. Every conflict in this country has been linked in one way or another to the mining of Congo’s minerals. There is no question about the link between conflict minerals and the conflict here—it’s crystal clear.
I’d imagine 99 percent of the American population doesn’t know that their cell phones and electronic devices are full of conflict minerals. I have been guilty of that as well.
Citizens of the United States need to understand that Congo has always been essential to their technological advancements. Take the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing—those materials were sourced from Congo. And today, all the gadgets and electronics in America are made possible partly because of conflict minerals. So feeling guilty is good, but that’s not enough. Instead of pulling out, they should invest and set up processing plants, because that’s the only way we’re going to have roads rebuilt, hospitals, schools… at least the beginning of an infrastructure. So if they decide to pull out because they feel guilty, then they are condemning people to death.
I’m positive that mining companies and US corporations would love to come to Congo and set up processing plants, real mines, and invest in the infrastructure, but they’re scared, right? There are Rwandan rebels all around, and they are afraid that the Mai Mai, people with “special powers,” are going to kill them. It’s probably not an easy place to do business.
You can find all kinds of excuses, but please let me keep this belief, this hope, this trust that there are still some ethical businessmen in the US who would not make those excuses. We have places that are safe where they can do business. You’re staying here in Ihusi, for instance! I can see you’re alive! I can see we’re having a chat here. So I don’t think being afraid of the armed groups is a good excuse.
Traditionally, what role have the Mai Mai had in the control of mines in this country?
The FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) have been teaming up with the Mai Mai to get control of mines in Lubero, but they have also been burning houses, killing, and raping people. In fact, that happened just three days ago. I think that gives you a sense of how much control these armed groups still have over the mines.
When we interviewed General Janvier, the leader of the Mai Mai group APCLS (Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo) he said the most important thing Congo needs to do is get rid of the Rwandans. He wants to send them all back to Rwanda, even the FDLR. Basically, he’s denying that they are working with the Rwandans. They haven’t admitted their cooperation publicly, right?
You are right. There are also a lot of instances where Congolese army officers team up with the FDLR over control of mines.
The Congolese army and the FDLR?
What the fuck is going on? [Laughing] Sorry, when you say Congolese army you mean the FARDC?
But I thought you were saying that the FDLR and the Mai Mai were fighting together as one unit against the FARDC. It seems like the FDLR are playing both sides.
You are right. Sometimes it is together with the armed groups, and even with some individual FARDC officers, and other times it’s totally against the armed groups and the Congolese army. It’s tricky, but it is all because of the minerals. When it comes to the minerals, even if you have to make a deal with the devil, you do it. That’s the situation here in Congo, unfortunately.
How powerful of an individual is General Janvier?
He is not powerful. He relies on local militias, untrained guys. The fact that the territory he’s controlling is in the jungle is the only advantage he has. That makes it very hard to forcibly pull them out if they can’t get them out through negotiations.
We saw how hard it was to get in there. No wonder they can do what they want in there. But at the same time, everyone we spoke to said that they are the fiercest militia in the country and everyone is scared of them.
This is just publicity. OK, I will acknowledge that they have some power, but a lot of it is mythical. Many people believe that the Mai Mai—which means “water water”—have a special water they spread on themselves to make them bulletproof. Well, that’s a joke. The claim has always been that they fight against what they call the Rwandan invasions—the Rwandan-backed troops—but the rebels have controlled over 60 percent of this country for over five years.
So when people say that the war is officially over and you are in a time of peace, what’s your response to that?
The government just wants to play it that way because they want credibility with the international community. That’s the whole explanation.
They don’t want the Western media to know that eastern Congo is still a full conflict zone outside of wherever the UN has its troops.
We have had 45 FARDC brigades fighting against the FDLR for almost two years now. The FDLR doesn’t have more than 3500 combatants, but they are still fighting against all the FARDC brigades.
Can you tell me some of your personal memories from growing up during the Congolese wars?
[laughs] Oh my God.
If it’s not too painful.
I once worked with what used to be called the Congolese Authority. I was among the first ones to try to set up a system here that would have control over any tax collecting services. Unfortunately, it turned out that all the money was going back to Rwanda and into people’s pockets, so I had to resign. I fled to Kinshasa because my life was being threatened. It was there that I came to know the first Mai Mai movement. It was called MCR. I got tattooed myself, because I wanted to know if this magic water would really make me bulletproof. When I came back to the east, I attended a battle outside in Masisi, and I was really disappointed. I was glad, however, that I joined this adventurous movement because at least I was able to see for myself whether the rumors were true or not. And they were not. The real Mai Mai is the United States’ military, the Western weapons—that’s the true Mai Mai. I had to tear up all my documents that said I was the provincial representative of the Mai Mai movement. I said, “this is really bullshit and we have to do things other ways.” I was so glad though, because I came back to my earlier battle of advocating for the people instead of joining a militia.
Wait, so you were part of the Mai Mai.
Why didn’t you tell us that before? [laughs] OK, you’re an educated man who has traveled and lived in different places, but many people believe that the Mai Mai have special powers. It’s real for them.
It’s real for them. But you understand that this is a result of our failing education system. We’ve never been introduced to any critical thinking. Whatever we’re told, we buy it. That’s why I said I was so glad that I actually did join and was tattooed as a Mai Mai, because I was able to see for myself if it really worked. You Western guys are different. Almost nobody in Congo would venture into the cemetery during the night, but if you guys need to do any investigation or research there, you’re going to do it. So you have this thinking that pushes you to find things out. That’s what we’re lacking.