STORIES: République démocratique du Congo: the War of Minerals
République démocratique du Congo: the War of Minerals
I’m back in Congo.
It’s been a year since I was last here. I left suddenly, because they were still talking about bombs and death in Ndosho, among the people I’d stayed with. Those who had helped me. Defended me.
But when I got here, the first thing that struck me was the sheer amount of people thronging around the main street of Goma, which cuts through the city from the Great Barrier border crossing with Rwanda right down towards the Masisi plateau and beyond.
The bombings were isolated incidents. Peace negotiations have started up again across the tables in Kampala.
The leaders of the factions got up, sat back down, banged their fists on the table and the doors behind them.
Then they came back, and sat back down. In silence, they pretended to start negotiating afresh.
So I went back to my initial plan to seek out the roots of this war that has been bloodying Congo since the time of Leopold II of Belgium: the control and exploitation of the subsoil. In the mid-nineteenth century, rubber and ivory; today, gold and coltan.
I’d been looking after a Mai Mai for several months. The Mai Mai are a sort of partisans who believe in witchcraft, in the purity of water - Maji Maji, Mai Mai, in Swahili - and its ability to wash away the sins of the upstanding warrior, rendering him immortal in battle.
The pact we had established was that we would give his two children the opportunity to study in a school run by missionary nuns, and he would find a way to take me to a coltan mine under their control.
And that’s what happened, in a sense. He took me across the Masisi plateau.
The Masisi has been the scene of fierce conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi. It’s a beautifully lush, green environment, with its gentle contours shaping hills and rough climbs cut in two by swelling rivers.
And so we arrived in Rubaya.
Rubaya is a heap of huts built at both sides of a single strip of mud, which have grown up around the manganite and coltan mining business.
But in Rubaya, it’s the Nyatura who call the shots, and not the Mai Mai.
The Nyatura are Congolese Hutu who left the CNDP rebels, which then changed its name to M23, and are now allies of the FARDC, the government armed forces.
Kinshasa did not oppose their taking control of the mining area; in face they almost handed it over in a sort of quid pro quo arrangement.
Kinshasa is two thousand kilometers away, and can close its eyes to the patrols, the searches and the violence exercised by the Nyatura, who have the city by the throat. Without their permission, no-one enters or leaves.
Since it had nothing to gain – even the weapons are those they had as rebels – by reincorporating them into their ranks, Kinshasa let them take over this town and its mines. A sort of tacit agreement with the state.
In this sort of suspended universe, in tin huts with beaten mud floors lit by diesel lamps, the miners get drunk on warm beer. There are huts used as brothels, with prostitutes little more than children welcoming one client after another behind plastic sheets.
The 10 thousand inhabitants survive thanks to the mine on the top of a mountain scarred by pickaxes.
A group of soldiers stops us as soon as we arrive in the town. Two white men do not go unnoticed in Rubaya. Our contact, the Mai Mai with us, asks to speak to the colonel. We are escorted to the Eden hotel and told to wait there.
After a couple of hours, a few soldiers come back for us, and accompany us to a place in the centre of town.
We climb the steep stairs, with colorful, subdued lighting and soldiers wrapped around girls in ambiguous poses who look suspiciously at us.
We come into a little room with a low ceiling. Rays of light filter through the dirty curtain at the small window, cutting through the smoke of the Sports cigarettes that hangs thick in the air. Seated around a table, downing whisky mixed with all sorts, we find all the top dogs of the army there waiting for us.
Colonel Marcel Habarugira, with the sharp, penetrating eyes of someone who’s seen it all, invites us to take a seat, with a carefully considered, confident gesture.
Our contact is seated beside him. He’s in on this.
The colonel lets us introduce ourselves, and we explain that we’re there to tell of the heroic actions of the Nyatura, of their courage and devotion, of their patriotism and their efforts to protect the defenseless population of Rubaya from the continual attacks of international bandits intent on stealing their coltan from the mines.
As my interpreter translates, he nods, indulgently it seems. For a moment he almost appears to believe what I’m saying.
When I’ve finished, he pauses for a while to let my words sink in. No-one moves a muscle. Silence. Then one of the men seated around the table takes the one next to him by the arm, whispers something in his ear and sniggers. Then silence falls once more.
The colonel begins to speak. He starts telling us his story, speaking slowly and filled with pride about when he was called upon by Bosco Ntaganda to found M23, and he said no. Everyone nods and goes along with him; someone is about to intervene, but the colonel hushes him with a swift gesture of the hand, and by slightly raising his chin.
He praises our courage, saying the westerners are rarely seen around these parts, so we are welcome; he goes on to say that we have run a huge risk to reach Rubaya, but that they are our brothers, and we no longer have anything to fear, because we are under the protection of the Nyatura. Then silence once more, almost as if he wants his words to sink in carefully again.
He twiddles his cane sword, drumming with his fingers on the handle, looks towards the light filtering through the window, then stares me right in the eye and adds “In wartime, brothers help one another. And since you wouldn’t be able to get out of here alive without our help, I’m asking you how you can help us, what you can offer us in exchange for your life, which we’re saving”.
And to think I almost believed him for a moment.
Silence falls once more.
I think of home. Of my girlfriend. It’s her birthday. I think of how I’m going to tell her all this. How I’m going to explain to her the privilege this grant has given me, the chance to see this other world. How I’m going to tell her about the red sunrise of the Masisi, which swallows up the leaden grey skies heavy with rain, mixing the smell of the bonfires in the distance with the fragrance of African cedar wood and of the aroma the ebony and teak given off by the humidity of the forest, impregnating this extraordinary land that once again has left me breathless.