Sunday 7 February 2010

Democratic Republic of the Congo

was Republic of Zaire & was Belgian Congo before that
Up, Down.

it's not news eh? going on since the end of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, 16 years


1885 Congo Free State, Leopold II.
1908 Belgian Congo.
1960 Republic of the Congo (Léopoldville), Joseph Kasa-Vubu, Patrice Lumumba.
1965 Republic of Zaire, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu / Mobutu Sese Seko.
1997 Democratic Republic of the Congo, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, Joseph Kabila.

Democratic Republic of the CongoJean-Pierre Bemba, Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, Germain Katanga, Thomas Lubanga, Bosco Ntaganda - the Terminator, Laurent Nkunda - the Chairman, Denis Sassou Nguesso,

Coltan/Columbite–Tantalite, Tin Oxide/Cassiterite

yesterday I happened to read Nicholas Kristof's story about Lisa Shannon, From ‘Oprah’ to Building a Sisterhood in Congo, and I thought ... Oprah? doh! how ditzy is that? hummed a few bars of American Woman and carried on, but I did read another of his Congo pieces, The World Capital of Killing, about Denis Mukwege and the Hospital Panzi where he works and one of his patients, Jeanne Mukuninwa - and today I went back and read it a few more times

of course Toronto is home to all sorts of ditzy women, take Margaret Wente f'rinstance (puh-leeze!) who writes such absolute rubbish as The great global warming collapse, though she is not quite disinterested, as a Director of Energy Probe she supports the likes of Larry Solomon and his book The Deniers, so you could say that Wente softened me up on the ditz front ... and Sarah Palin softened me up a bit more with her public musing about running for president in 2012, it's happening in other places as well - not just Toronto ... by the time I got to Lisa Shannon she was getting the full benefit of a softening shrift so to speak - she almost seemed normal!

Jeanne Mukuninwa is in another realm altogether, so is Denis Mukwege ...

Denis MukwegeDenis MukwegeDenis MukwegeDenis MukwegeDenis MukwegeDenis Mukwege
Jeanne MukuninwaJeanne MukuninwaJeanne MukuninwaJeanne MukuninwaJeanne MukuninwaJeanne Mukuninwa

1-1. The World Capital of Killing, Nicholas Kristof, Feb 6 2010.
1-2. From ‘Oprah’ to Building a Sisterhood in Congo, Nicholas Kristof, Feb 3 2010.
1-3. Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War, Jeffrey Gettleman, Oct 7 2007.
1-4. Congo's tragedy: the war the world has forgotten, Johann Hari, Oct 31 2008.
1-5. Congo: A Hell on Earth for Women, René Lefort, Sep 18 2003.

Postcards from the Edge, Oprah, Feb 25 2005.
I Am Starting to Throw Away My Worries One by One, Oprah, Dec 15 2006.
“Not Women Anymore…”, Stephanie Nolen, Spring 2005.
DR Congo's women in the frontline, Ishbel Matheson, Nov 6 2002.

     1a. Nicholas Kristof: NYT Blog, YouTube videos.
     1b. Denis Mukwege: The Panzi Hospital of Bukavu.
     1c. Lisa Shannon: Run for Congo Women.
     1d. Lisa F. Jackson: The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo (film).
     1d. Lisa F. Jackson: Église du Christ au Congo.

1-6. Tantalum: Congo Conflict Mineral, Melissa Pistilli, Feb 12 2010.
1-7. Tracing the Tantalum Trade–Part One, Melissa Pistilli, Feb 17 2010.
1-8. Cell phone minerals fuel deadly Congo conflict, Tristan McConnell, Jan 19 2010.
1-9. Cell phones and Congo's war against women, John Prendergast, Jan 7 2009.
1-10. The new blood diamonds, John Prendergast, Aug 1 2009.

2. The great global warming collapse, Margaret Wente, Feb 6 2010.
     2a. Energy Probe.

The World Capital of Killing, Nicholas Kristof, Feb 6 2010.

BUKAVU, Congo - It’s easy to wonder how world leaders, journalists, religious figures and ordinary citizens looked the other way while six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. And it’s even easier to assume that we’d do better.

But so far the brutal war here in eastern Congo has not only lasted longer than the Holocaust but also appears to have claimed more lives. A peer- reviewed study put the Congo war’s death toll at 5.4 million as of April 2007 and rising at 45,000 a month. That would leave the total today, after a dozen years, at 6.9 million.

What those numbers don’t capture is the way Congo has become the world capital of rape, torture and mutilation, in ways that sear survivors like Jeanne Mukuninwa, a beautiful, cheerful young woman of 19 who somehow musters the courage to giggle. Her parents disappeared in the fighting when she had just turned 14 — perhaps they were massacred, but their bodies never turned up — so she moved in with her uncle.

A few months later, the extremist Hutu militia invaded the home. She remembers that it was the day of her very first menstrual period — the only one she has ever had.

“First, they tied up my uncle,” Jeanne said. “They cut off his hands, gouged out his eyes, cut off his feet, cut off his sex organs, and left him like that. He was still alive.

“His wife and his son were also there. Then they took all of us into the forest.” That militia is known for kidnapping people and enslaving them for months, even years. Men are turned into porters, and girls into sex slaves.

Jeanne and other girls were regularly tied spread-eagle and gang-raped, and she soon became pregnant. The rapes continued, sometimes with sticks that tore apart her insides and left her dribbling wastes constantly. Somehow the fetus survived, but her pelvis was too immature to deliver the baby.

One of the people the militia had kidnapped was a doctor who was forced to treat the soldiers. The doctor, seeing that Jeanne was close to dying in obstructed childbirth, cut her open with an old knife, without anesthetic, and removed the stillborn baby. Jeanne was delirious and almost dead, so the militia dumped her beside a road.

“She was completely destroyed inside,” said another doctor, Denis Mukwege, who saved her life after she was brought here to Bukavu. Dr. Mukwege, 54, presides over the 400-bed Panzi Hospital, supported by the European Union and private groups like the Fistula Foundation. He is sometimes mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize for his heroic efforts to fight the war and heal its victims.

Dr. Mukwege operated on Jeanne nine times over three years to repair the fistulas that were causing her to leak wastes. Finally he succeeded, and she returned to her village to live with her grandmother.

“He told me to stay away from men for three months,” Jeanne remembers, to give her body time to heal. But three days after she returned to the village, the militia came again and raped again. The fistula reopened.

Jeanne, kept naked in the forest and stinking because her internal injuries had reopened, finally managed to escape and eventually found her way back to Panzi Hospital. Dr. Mukwege has already started a second round of surgeries on her, but there is so little tissue left that it is not clear she can ever be continent again.

About 12 percent of the raped women he treats have contracted syphilis, and 6 percent have H.I.V. He does what he can to repair their injuries and help them heal — until the next time.

“Sometimes I don’t know what I am doing here,” Dr. Mukwege said despairingly. “There is no medical solution.” The paramount need, he says, is not for more humanitarian aid for Congo, but for a much more vigorous international effort to end the war itself.

That means putting pressure on neighboring Rwanda, a country so widely admired for its good governance at home that it tends to get a pass for its possible role in war crimes next door. We also need pressure on the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, to arrest Gen. Jean Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. And, as recommended by an advocacy organization called the Enough Project, we need a U.S.-brokered effort to monitor the minerals trade from Congo so that warlords can no longer buy guns by exporting gold, tin or coltan.

Unless we see some leadership here, the fighting in Congo — fueled by profits from mineral exports — will continue indefinitely. So if we don’t act now, when will we? When the toll reaches 10 million deaths? When Jeanne is kidnapped and raped for a third time?

From ‘Oprah’ to Building a Sisterhood in Congo, Nicholas Kristof, Feb 3 2010.

BUKAVU, Congo - Five years ago, Lisa Shannon watched “Oprah” and learned about the savage, forgotten war here in eastern Congo, played out in massacres and mass rape. That show transformed Lisa’s life, costing her a good business, a beloved fiancé, and a comfortable home in Portland, Ore. — but giving her a chance to save lives in Congo.

I found myself stepping with Lisa into a shack here. It was night, there was no electricity, and a tropical rainstorm was turning the shantytown into a field of mud and streams. Lisa had come to visit a woman she calls her sister, Generose Namburho, a 40-year-old nurse.

Generose’s story is numbingly familiar: extremist Hutu militiamen invaded her home one night, killed her husband and prepared to rape her. Then, because she shouted in an attempt to warn her neighbors, they hacked off her leg above the knee with a machete.

As Generose lay bleeding near her husband’s corpse, the soldiers cut up the amputated leg, cooked the pieces on the kitchen fire, and ordered her children to eat their mother’s flesh. One son, a 12-year-old, refused. “If you kill me, kill me,” he told the soldiers, as his mother remembers it. “But I will not eat a part of my mother.”

So they shot him dead. The murder is one of Generose’s last memories before she blacked out, waking up days later in the hospital where she had worked.

That’s where Lisa enters the story. After seeing the Oprah show on the Congo war, Lisa began to read more about it, learning that it is the most lethal conflict since World War II. More than five million had already died as of the last peer-reviewed mortality estimate in 2007.

Everybody told her that the atrocities continued because nobody cared. Lisa, who is now 34, was appalled and decided to show that she cared. She asked friends to sponsor her for a solo 30-mile fund-raising run for Congolese women.

That led her to establish Run for Congo Women, which has held fund-raising runs in 10 American states and three foreign countries. The money goes to support sponsorships of Congolese women through a group called Women for Women International.

But in her passion, Lisa neglected the stock photo business that she and her fiancé ran together. Finally, he signaled to her that she had to choose — and she chose Congo.

One of the Congolese women (“sisters”) whom Lisa sponsored with her fund-raising was Generose. Lisa’s letters and monthly checks of $27 began arriving just in time.

“God sent me Lisa to release me,” Generose told me fervently, as the rain pounded the roof, and she then compared Lisa to an angel and to Jesus Christ.

Scrunching up in embarrassment in the darkened room, Lisa fended off deification. She noted that many impoverished Congolese families have taken in orphans. “They’ve lost everything,” she said, “but they take children in when they can’t even feed their own properly. I’ve been so inspired by them. I’ve tried to restructure my life to emulate them.”

It’s true. While for years world leaders have mostly looked the other way, while our friend Rwanda has helped perpetuate this war, while Congo’s president has refused to arrest a general wanted by the International Criminal Court, while global companies have accepted tin, coltan and other minerals produced by warlords — amid all this irresponsibility, many ordinary Congolese have stepped forward to share the nothing they have with their neighbors.

So Lisa is right that Generose and so many others here are awe-inspiring. Lisa tells her story in a moving book, “A Thousand Sisters,” that is set to be published in April. Congo is now her obsession, and she is volunteering full time on the cause as she lives off the declining royalties from her old stock photos.

She earns psychic pay when she sees a woman here who named her daughter Lisa. After we visited Congolese Lisa, I asked American Lisa about the toll of her Congo obsession — the lost business, man and home they had shared.

“Technically, I had a good life before, but I wasn’t very happy,” she mused. “Now I feel I have much more of a sense of meaning.”

Maybe that’s why I gravitate toward Lisa’s story. In a land where so many “responsible” leaders eschew responsibility, Lisa has gone out of her way to assume responsibility and try to make a difference. Along with an unbelievable cast of plucky Congolese survivors such as Generose, she evokes hope.

On this visit to Congo, Lisa is organizing a Run for Congo Women right here in Bukavu, for Feb. 28, with Congolese rape survivors participating. You can sponsor them at And one of those participating in the run, hobbling along on crutches and her one leg, will be Generose.

The great global warming collapse, Margaret Wente, Feb 6 2010.

As the science scandals keep coming, the air has gone out of the climate-change movement

In 2007, the most comprehensive report to date on global warming, issued by the respected United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made a shocking claim: The Himalayan glaciers could melt away as soon as 2035.

These glaciers provide the headwaters for Asia's nine largest rivers and lifelines for the more than one billion people who live downstream. Melting ice and snow would create mass flooding, followed by mass drought. The glacier story was reported around the world. Last December, a spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund, an environmental pressure group, warned, “The deal reached at Copenhagen will have huge ramifications for the lives of hundreds of millions of people who are already highly vulnerable due to widespread poverty.” To dramatize their country's plight, Nepal's top politicians strapped on oxygen tanks and held a cabinet meeting on Mount Everest.

But the claim was rubbish, and the world's top glaciologists knew it. It was based not on rigorously peer-reviewed science but on an anecdotal report by the WWF itself. When its background came to light on the eve of Copenhagen, Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, shrugged it off. But now, even leading scientists and environmental groups admit the IPCC is facing a crisis of credibility that makes the Climategate affair look like small change.

“The global warming movement as we have known it is dead,” the brilliant analyst Walter Russell Mead says in his blog on The American Interest. It was done in by a combination of bad science and bad politics.

The impetus for the Copenhagen conference was that the science makes it imperative for us to act. But even if that were true – and even if we knew what to do – a global deal was never in the cards. As Mr. Mead writes, “The global warming movement proposed a complex set of international agreements involving vast transfers of funds, intrusive regulations in national economies, and substantial changes to the domestic political economies of most countries on the planet.” Copenhagen was never going to produce a breakthrough. It was a dead end.

And now, the science scandals just keep on coming. First there was the vast cache of e-mails leaked from the University of East Anglia, home of a crucial research unit responsible for collecting temperature data. Although not fatal to the science, they revealed a snakepit of scheming to keep contradictory research from being published, make imperfect data look better, and withhold information from unfriendly third parties. If science is supposed to be open and transparent, these guys acted as if they had a lot to hide.

Despite widespread efforts to play down the Climategate e-mails, they were very damaging. An investigation by the British newspaper The Guardian – among the most aggressive advocates for action on climate change – has found that a series of measurements from Chinese weather stations were seriously flawed, and that documents relating to them could not be produced.

Meantime, the IPCC – the body widely regarded, until now, as the ultimate authority on climate science – is looking worse and worse. After it was forced to retract its claim about melting glaciers, Mr. Pachauri dismissed the error as a one-off. But other IPCC claims have turned out to be just as groundless.

For example, it warned that large tracts of the Amazon rain forest might be wiped out by global warming because they are extremely susceptible to even modest decreases in rainfall. The sole source for that claim, reports The Sunday Times of London, was a magazine article written by a pair of climate activists, one of whom worked for the WWF. One scientist contacted by the Times, a specialist in tropical forest ecology, called the article “a mess.”

Worse still, the Times has discovered that Mr. Pachauri's own Energy and Resources Unit, based in New Delhi, has collected millions in grants to study the effects of glacial melting – all on the strength of that bogus glacier claim, which happens to have been endorsed by the same scientist who now runs the unit that got the money. Even so, the IPCC chief is hanging tough. He insists the attacks on him are being orchestrated by companies facing lower profits.

Until now, anyone who questioned the credibility of the IPCC was labelled as a climate skeptic, or worse. But many climate scientists now sense a sinking ship, and they're bailing out. Among them is Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria who acknowledges that the climate body has crossed the line into advocacy. Even Britain's Greenpeace has called for Mr. Pachauri's resignation. India says it will establish its own body to monitor the effects of global warming because it “cannot rely” on the IPCC.

None of this is to say that global warming isn't real, or that human activity doesn't play a role, or that the IPCC is entirely wrong, or that measures to curb greenhouse-gas emissions aren't valid. But the strategy pursued by activists (including scientists who have crossed the line into advocacy) has turned out to be fatally flawed.

By exaggerating the certainties, papering over the gaps, demonizing the skeptics and peddling tales of imminent catastrophe, they've discredited the entire climate-change movement. The political damage will be severe. As Mr. Mead succinctly puts it: “Skeptics up, Obama down, cap-and-trade dead.” That also goes for Canada, whose climate policies are inevitably tied to those of the United States.

“I don't think it's healthy to dismiss proper skepticism,” says John Beddington, the chief scientific adviser to the British government. He is a staunch believer in man-made climate change, but he also points out the complexity of climate science. “Science grows and improves in the light of criticism. There is a fundamental uncertainty about climate change prediction that can't be changed.” In his view, it's time to stop circling the wagons and throw open the doors. How much the public will keep caring is another matter.

Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War, Jeffrey Gettleman, Oct 7 2007.

BUKAVU, Congo — Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore.

Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair.

“We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear,” said Dr. Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo’s rape epidemic. “They are done to destroy women.”

Eastern Congo is going through another one of its convulsions of violence, and this time it seems that women are being systematically attacked on a scale never before seen here. According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in South Kivu Province alone, and that may be just a fraction of the total number across the country.

“The sexual violence in Congo is the worst in the world,” said John Holmes, the United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs. “The sheer numbers, the wholesale brutality, the culture of impunity — it’s appalling.”

The days of chaos in Congo were supposed to be over. Last year, this country of 66 million people held a historic election that cost $500 million and was intended to end Congo’s various wars and rebellions and its tradition of epically bad government.

But the elections have not unified the country or significantly strengthened the Congolese government’s hand to deal with renegade forces, many of them from outside the country. The justice system and the military still barely function, and United Nations officials say Congolese government troops are among the worst offenders when it comes to rape. Large swaths of the country, especially in the east, remain authority-free zones where civilians are at the mercy of heavily armed groups who have made warfare a livelihood and survive by raiding villages and abducting women for ransom.

According to victims, one of the newest groups to emerge is called the Rastas, a mysterious gang of dreadlocked fugitives who live deep in the forest, wear shiny tracksuits and Los Angeles Lakers jerseys and are notorious for burning babies, kidnapping women and literally chopping up anybody who gets in their way.

United Nations officials said the so-called Rastas were once part of the Hutu militias who fled Rwanda after committing genocide there in 1994, but now it seems they have split off on their own and specialize in freelance cruelty.

Honorata Barinjibanwa, an 18-year-old woman with high cheekbones and downcast eyes, said she was kidnapped from a village that the Rastas raided in April and kept as a sex slave until August. Most of that time she was tied to a tree, and she still has rope marks ringing her delicate neck. The men would untie her for a few hours each day to gang-rape her, she said.

“I’m weak, I’m angry, and I don’t know how to restart my life,” she said from Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, where she was taken after her captors freed her.

She is also pregnant.

While rape has always been a weapon of war, researchers say they fear that Congo’s problem has metastasized into a wider social phenomenon.

“It’s gone beyond the conflict,” said Alexandra Bilak, who has studied various armed groups around Bukavu, on the shores of Lake Kivu. She said that the number of women abused and even killed by their husbands seemed to be going up and that brutality toward women had become “almost normal.”

Malteser International, a European aid organization that runs health clinics in eastern Congo, estimates that it will treat 8,000 sexual violence cases this year, compared with 6,338 last year. The organization said that in one town, Shabunda, 70 percent of the women reported being sexually brutalized.

At Panzi Hospital, where Dr. Mukwege performs as many as six rape-related surgeries a day, bed after bed is filled with women lying on their backs, staring at the ceiling, with colostomy bags hanging next to them because of all the internal damage.

“I still have pain and feel chills,” said Kasindi Wabulasa, a patient who was raped in February by five men. The men held an AK-47 rifle to her husband’s chest and made him watch, telling him that if he closed his eyes, they would shoot him. When they were finished, Ms. Wabulasa said, they shot him anyway.

In almost all the reported cases, the culprits are described as young men with guns, and in the deceptively beautiful hills here, there is no shortage of them: poorly paid and often mutinous government soldiers; homegrown militias called the Mai-Mai who slick themselves with oil before marching into battle; members of paramilitary groups originally from Uganda and Rwanda who have destabilized this area over the past 10 years in a quest for gold and all the other riches that can be extracted from Congo’s exploited soil.

The attacks go on despite the presence of the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world, with more than 17,000 troops.

Few seem to be spared. Dr. Mukwege said his oldest patient was 75, his youngest 3.

“Some of these girls whose insides have been destroyed are so young that they don’t understand what happened to them,” Dr. Mukwege said. “They ask me if they will ever be able to have children, and it’s hard to look into their eyes.”

No one — doctors, aid workers, Congolese and Western researchers — can explain exactly why this is happening.

“That is the question,” said André Bourque, a Canadian consultant who works with aid groups in eastern Congo. “Sexual violence in Congo reaches a level never reached anywhere else. It is even worse than in Rwanda during the genocide.”

Impunity may be a contributing factor, Mr. Bourque added, saying that very few of the culprits are punished.

Many Congolese aid workers denied that the problem was cultural and insisted that the widespread rapes were not the product of something ingrained in the way men treated women in Congolese society. “If that were the case, this would have showed up long ago,” said Wilhelmine Ntakebuka, who coordinates a sexual violence program in Bukavu.

Instead, she said, the epidemic of rapes seems to have started in the mid-1990s. That coincides with the waves of Hutu militiamen who escaped into Congo’s forests after exterminating 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during Rwanda’s genocide 13 years ago.

Mr. Holmes said that while government troops might have raped thousands of women, the most vicious attacks had been carried out by Hutu militias.

“These are people who were involved with the genocide and have been psychologically destroyed by it,” he said.

Mr. Bourque called this phenomenon “reversed values” and said it could develop in heavily traumatized areas that had been steeped in conflict for many years, like eastern Congo.

This place, one of the greenest, hilliest and most scenic slices of central Africa, continues to reverberate from the aftershocks of the genocide next door. Take the recent fighting near Bukavu between the Congolese Army and Laurent Nkunda, a dissident general who commands a formidable rebel force. Mr. Nkunda is a Congolese Tutsi who has accused the Congolese Army of supporting Hutu militias, which the army denies. Mr. Nkunda says his rebel force is simply protecting Tutsi civilians from being victimized again.

But his men may be no better.

Willermine Mulihano said she was raped twice — first by Hutu militiamen two years ago and then by Nkunda soldiers in July. Two soldiers held her legs apart, while three others took turns violating her.

“When I think about what happened,” she said, “I feel anxious and brokenhearted.”

She is also lonely. Her husband divorced her after the first rape, saying she was diseased.

In some cases, the attacks are on civilians already caught in the cross-fire between warring groups. In one village near Bukavu where 27 women were raped and 18 civilians killed in May, the attackers left behind a note in broken Swahili telling the villagers that the violence would go on as long as government troops were in the area.

The United Nations peacekeepers here seem to be stepping up efforts to protect women.

Recently, they initiated what they call “night flashes,” in which three truckloads of peacekeepers drive into the bush and keep their headlights on all night as a signal to both civilians and armed groups that the peacekeepers are there. Sometimes, when morning comes, 3,000 villagers are curled up on the ground around them.

But the problem seems bigger than the resources currently devoted to it.

Panzi Hospital has 350 beds, and though a new ward is being built specifically for rape victims, the hospital sends women back to their villages before they have fully recovered because it needs space for the never-ending stream of new arrivals.

Dr. Mukwege, 52, said he remembered the days when Bukavu was known for its stunning lake views and nearby national parks, like Kahuzi-Biega.

“There used to be a lot of gorillas in there,” he said. “But now they’ve been replaced by much more savage beasts.”

Congo's tragedy: the war the world has forgotten, Johann Hari, Oct 31 2008.

In a country the size of Western Europe, a war rages that has lasted eight years and cost four million lives. Rival militias inflict appalling suffering on the civilian population, and what passes for political leadership is powerless to stop it. This is Congo, and the reason for the conflict - control of minerals essential to the electronic gadgetry on which the developed world depends - is what makes our blindness to the horror doubly shaming. Johann Hari reports from the killing fields of central Africa

This is the story of the deadliest war since Adolf Hitler's armies marched across Europe - a war that has not ended. But is also the story of a trail of blood that leads directly to you: to your remote control, to your mobile phone, to your laptop and to your diamond necklace. In the TV series Lost, a group of plane crash survivors believe they are stranded alone on a desert island, until one day they discover a dense metal cable leading out into the ocean and the world beyond. The Democratic Republic of Congo is full of those cables, mysterious connections that show how a seemingly isolated tribal war is in reality something very different.

This war has been dismissed as an internal African implosion. In reality it is a battle for coltan, diamonds, cassiterite and gold, destined for sale in London, New York and Paris. It is a battle for the metals that make our technological society vibrate and ring and bling, and it has already claimed four million lives in five years and broken a population the size of Britain's. No, this is not only a story about them. This - the tale of a short journey into the long Congolese war we in the West have fostered, fuelled and funded - is a story about you.

I Rapes Within Rapes

It starts with a ward full of women who have been gang-raped and then shot in the vagina. I am standing in a makeshift ward in the Panzi hospital in Bukavu, the only hospital that is trying to deal with the bushfire of sexual violence in eastern Congo. Most have wrapped themselves deep in their blankets so I can only see their eyes staring blankly at me. Dr Denis Mukwege is speaking. "Around 10 per cent of the gang-rape victims have had this happen to them," he says softly, his big hands tucked into his white coat. "We are trying to reconstruct their vaginas, their anuses, their intestines. It is a long process."

We walk out into the courtyard and he begins to explain - in the national language, French - the secret history of this hospital. "We started with a catastrophe we just couldn't understand," he says softly. One day early in the war, the Unicef medical van he was using was looted. Coincidentally, a few days later, a woman was carried here on her grandmother's back after an eight-hour trek. "I had never seen anything like it. She had been gang-raped and then her legs had been shot to pieces. I operated on her on a table with no equipment, no medicine."

She was only the first. "We suddenly had so many women coming in with post-rape lesions and injuries I could never have imagined. Our minds just couldn't take in what these women had suffered." The competing armies had discovered that rape was an efficient weapon in this war. Even in this small province, South Kivu, the UN estimates that 45,000 women were raped last year alone. "It destroys the morale of the men to rape their women. Crippling their women cripples their society," he explains, shaking his head gently. There were so many militias around that Dr Mukwege had to keep his treatments secret - the women were terrified of being kidnapped again and killed. He became an Oskar Schindler of the Congolese mass rapes.

As we walk down to watch 200 rape victims being taught to sew under a large, dark bridge, he tells me what they can expect now. "When the rapes begin, the husbands and fathers often just scarper and never come back. The women never hear anything from them again. Other times, the men blame the women and shun them. It's very hard for us to persuade the women to leave the hospital, because where are they going to go?"

He introduces me to Aileen, who is 18 but looks much younger. She holds her hands tightly in her lap. Her story is stark, the details sparse. Her village was raided by a militia on 10 October, and "they beheaded people in the central square". Her voice is high-pitched; she is almost squeaking. She was seized and taken back out into the forest by the militia where they kept her for six months. "I was raped every night. The first night my body really ached and hurt because I was a virgin," she says. She would be passed on from one man to the next. It is only as she speaks that I notice the large protruding bump sagging into her lap. The baby is going to be born next month. She says she has spoken to her family, but Dr Mukwege tells me later this is a fantasy. "What," she asks me with wide eyes as we leave, "do you think I should do? Where can I go?"

It is coldly appropriate to start here. The rape of Aileen and the rape of the thousands of women who stagger into the Panzi hospital are, I soon discover, merely part of a larger rape - the rape of Congo.

II The Last of the Belgian Colonialists

Bukavu is a cratered, shattered shack-city in eastern Congo that lies on the edge of Lake Kivu. In the street markets, people trade scraps of food for Congolese notes worth a few pence. In the houses, they stagger along without water or electricity. Wandering through this cacophony, I find a lone white woman, a lingering remnant of the origins of this war. She can reveal how all this began.

As we sit over lunch, Tina Van Malderen says, skimming the menu: "I don't drink water - only wine." Her hair is greying but her smile is warm. "I came to Bukavu as a little girl in 1951 when my father came to work for the Belgian administration," she explains. "It was paradise. There were only Europeans then. No Africans. Black people lived in the surrounding areas. It wasn't like South Africa, they weren't forced. They didn't want to live with us. They came into the town to work. They had their own market." She speaks of the days of the Belgian empire with a soft-focus sepia longing. "I have four sisters, and we would swim in the lake all day. It was like a non-stop holiday."

Her family owned a chain of shops, and the only castle in Congo. She is incredulous when I ask if there was any cruelty towards black people back then. "Absolutely not. We loved our blacks. When they had children, we gave them gifts." Perhaps sensing my scepticism, she adds: "Maybe on the plantations they were a little bit rude to them." The Belgians unified Congo in the first great holocaust of the 20th century, a programme of slavery and tyranny that killed 13 million people. King Leopold II - bragging about his humanitarian goals, of course - seized Congo and turned it into a slave colony geared to extracting rubber, the coltan and cassiterite of its day. The "natives" who failed to gather enough rubber would have their hands chopped off, with the Belgian administrators receiving and carefully counting hundreds of baskets of hands a day.

This system of forced cultivation continued until the Belgians withdrew in 1960, when Patrice Lumumba became the first and only elected leader of Congo. "He was a stupid man," Tina says swiftly. "On the first day of independence, he said we had beaten and humiliated the blacks. He signed his death warrant by doing that."

She's right - he did. Lumumba claimed to be a democratic socialist who wanted to overcome Congo's ethnic divisions. We will never know if he could have fulfilled this dream, because the CIA decided he was a "mad dog" who had to be put down. Before long, one of its agents was driving around Kinshasa with the elected leader's tortured corpse in the boot, and the CIA's man - Mobutu Sese Seko - was in power and in the money. Tina's family sold their castle to the dictator as he renamed the country Zaire. "People always ask if he paid. Of course he paid!" she laughs. Mobutu became another Leopold, using the state to rob and murder the Congolese people.

Tina's family started to worry in the 1970s when he announced a programme of "Zaireanisation" - a Mugabe-style transfer of the resources of foreigners to his cronies. "My mother arrived at work one day and there was a black man come to take possession of everything, including her car. She had to walk home," Tina says, glugging red wine.

"Everything began to fail after that. The food became disgusting. Even our dog didn't want to eat it." This is Tina's first visit home - she still calls it that - since they fled. "I saw the house we lived in. From outside it still looked nice but when I went inside..." she shakes her head. "The black people cannot live properly. If I had to compare Congo, I must say it hasn't changed at all. They are not naked any more, but they are still savages." Tina's countrymen established the nation-state in the Congo, and they designed it to be a vampire-state. The only change over the decades has been the resource snatched for Western consumption - rubber under the Belgians, diamonds under Mobutu, coltan and cassiterite today. "Cheers," Tina says, downing her wine.

III The War for Games Consoles

If you want to glimpse what all this death has been for, you have cross Lake Kivu and drive for four hours, on pocked and broken roller-coaster roads, until you reach a place called Kalehe. Scarring the lush green hills are what seem to be large red scabs that glisten in the sun. The term for these open wounds in the earth is "artisinal mines", but this dry terminology conjures up images of technical digs with machines and lights and helmets. In reality, they are immense holes in the ground, in which men, women and children - lots of children - pick desperately with makeshift hammers or their bare hands at the red earth, hoping to find some coltan or cassiterite to set on the long conveyor belt to your house, or mine. Coltan is a metal that conducts heat unusually brilliantly. It is contained in your mobile, your lap-top, your son's PlayStation - and 80 per cent of the world's supplies sit beneath the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As I crawl down into the mine - its cool, damp darkness is a strange contrast to the raging Congolese sun - the miners laugh. The idea of a muzungu - a white man - in their mine seems to them impossibly comic. But they soon get back to picking away at a roof that looks like it could collapse at any moment. Ingo Mbale, 51, explains how the West's hunger for coltan is fed. "We were enslaved three years ago," he says. "An RCD captain [from one of the militias] arrived and forced us to mine for them at gunpoint. They gave us no money, it was slave labour. There is nothing left in many of these shafts now, they exhausted them. They killed many people. Our gold and coltan and cassiterite went out to the world via Rwanda."

Watching these men, the shape of Congo's recent history becomes clear. There is an official story about the war in Congo, and then there is the reality, uncovered by a trilogy of bomb-blast reports from the UN Panel of Experts on the DRC. The official story is convoluted and hard to follow, because it does not ultimately make sense. But its first chapter is true enough, and goes something like this. In 1996, a Maoist with an eye for money called Laurent-Désiré Kabila grew tired of simply running his little fiefdom in eastern Zaire, where he peddled ivory and gold with a nice sideline in kidnapping Westerners. Kabila decided to depose Mobutu, the omnipresent and omni-incompetent tyrant, and seize power for himself. He cobbled together a ragtag army of child soldiers known as the Kadogo and, with the support of neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda, the edifice of Mobutuism collapsed even before their tinny, tiny advance. Kabila installed himself as another Leopold-alike, banning political parties and bathing in corruption.

But then in 1998 Kabila asked the Rwandans and Ugandans to withdraw their troops from Congo - so long, and thanks for the armies - and the official story begins to drift away from reality. The Rwandans pulled back for a fortnight, but then mounted a massive invasion of Congo, seizing a third of the country. The public reason for this assault sounds reasonable. After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda - a slaughter that made even Auschwitz look slow-paced - tens of thousands of the Hutu Power machete-wielders fled across the border to Congo and set up long-term bases. How could any country rest with its murderers armed and crazed on its borders? "We must prevent the génocidaires from regrouping," said Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, with the supportive Ugandan military following in tow.

From his palace in Kinshasa, Kabila appealed to his friends for help resisting this Rwandan-Ugandan attack. Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola obligingly sent armies marching into Congo to fight back, and Africa's First World War began. The armies and militias marauding across Congo then became rebels without a cause, fighting each other because they were there and because pulling out would be a humiliating concession of defeat. In this version, the war in Congo is a mess, started with the best of intentions - the Rwandans' desire to track down génocidaires - only to spiral out of control. It presents the mass slaughter as a giant cock-up, a cosmic mistake. This is strangely reassuring. It is also a lie.

Once the Congo was drenched in death, the UN commissioned a panel of international statesmen to travel the country and uncover the reasons behind the war. They found that the Rwandan government's story hid a much darker truth. The Rwandans had a clear intention, right from the beginning: to seize Congo's massive mineral wealth, to grab the coltan mine I am standing in now and thousands like it, and to sell it on to us, the waiting world, as we quickly flicked the channel away from the news of this war with our coltan-filled remote control. The other countries came in not because they believed in repelling aggression, but because they wanted a piece of the Congolese cake. The country was ravaged by "armies of business", commanded by men who "carefully planned the redrawing of the regional map to redistribute wealth," the UN declared.

The UN experts knew this because the Rwandan troops did not head for the areas where the génocidaires were hiding out. They headed straight for the mines like this one in Kalehe, and they swiftly enslaved the populations to dig for them. They did not clear out the génocidaires - they teamed up with them to rape Congo. Jean-Pierre Ondekane, the chief of the Rwandan forces in Goma, urged his units to maintain good relations "with our Interhamwe [génocidaires] brothers." They set up a Congo Desk that whisked billions out of the country and into Rwandan bank accounts - and they fought to stay and pillage some more. The UN found that a Who's Who of British, American and Belgian companies were involved in the illegal exploitation of Congolese resources. The ones they recommended for further investigation included Anglo-American PLC, Barclays Bank, Standard Chartered Bank and De Beers. The British Government - while boasting of its humanitarian goals in Africa - barely followed up the report, publicly acquitting a few corporations like Anglo-American whose subisidary AngloGold Ashanti has been shown by Human Rights Watch to have developed links with a murderous armed group in the region, and leaving others like De Beers in an "unresolved" category.

Oh, and the reason why this invasion was so profitable? Global demand for coltan was soaring throughout the war because of the massive popularity of coltan-filled Sony PlayStations. While Sony itself does not use Congolese coltan, its sudden need for vast amounts of the metal drove up the price - which intensified the war. As Oona King, one of the few British politicians to notice Congo, explains as we travel together for a few days: "Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms."

As I climb back out into the hard sunshine, the miners turn to me. "Could you send us a hammer? We really need one. The militias took all our equipment."

IV The Tyrant's Jeer

On the long journey in an armoured UN vehicle, the questions seem so obvious, so trite. How could a government led by genocide victims suddenly commit its own epic crime against humanity, for nothing more than money? The answer lies across the border, through the rainforest, towards Kigali. I meet Charles Muligande, the Rwandan foreign minister, on the top floor of the Hotel Des Milles Collines, the real Hotel Rwanda. This is where hundreds of Tutsis hid out the holocaust while their brothers and sons were hacked to pieces on the streets outside.

Muligande has a strange combination of a youthful, unlined face and graying hair (with matching moustache), and he carries with him the unimpeachable moral stature of the victim. The sadness around the eyes, the haltingly recounted story of being driven across the border to Burundi as a child refugee, the relatives slaughtered in the genocide - they are all cruelly present. How can I challenge him? He speaks softly about the trauma counselling that is happening in Rwanda, and the fragile attempts at reconciliation. And then it comes - the chuckle.

I ask him about Congo's future, and he lets out a strange, hard-to-place laugh. "The DRC is a country that for the last 45 years has had pockets outside the control of central government," he says. "Even on the eve of the election, there will by places that are beyond the control of central government. This shouldn't be a cause for concern." And again with the chuckle.

What about the people who pay the price of the instability he waves away so casually? How does he sleep at night, knowing Rwanda has inflicted on its neighbours suffering akin to the horrors he and his family endured? He chuckles harder now, almost coughing. "This is rubbish. If we do a balance sheet, we incurred a lot of losses in fighting that war."

He says it with such airy conviction I have to grope in my mind for the right response. Why then does the UN's report say that Rwanda's pillage was "systematic" and "deliberate"? "That is an invention," he snaps. By the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch? "Yes. It doesn't become true just because it is repeated. If you have such a blind faith in Amnesty International," - he spits the words - "and the UN and Human Rights Watch, there is nothing I can tell you. It is like you are asking me to believe Jesus Christ is not my saviour come to change my soul. It is a faith-based position." No amount of probing will shift him. When he talks about the genocide, he is compassionate, honest, brave. When he talks about his own country's crimes against Congo, he sneers. Their trauma, it seems, is worth nothing. As he speaks, I wonder - does he believe this, or does he, in midnight sweats, think about the children driven from their homes just like a baby Muligande was all those years ago?

The more I probe, the more his face contorts into the tyrant's jeer. I have seen this before, in Iraq and in Israel/Palestine - the furrowed brow and the rote claim that the evil UN and Amnesty have it in for us. Blood? What blood?

V Thomas Hobbes was Right

The victims of the war - of that laugh - are scattered everywhere in eastern Congo. By the roadside the next morning, I find the living remnants of Ramba village, a home to 15,000. They make up a clump of 400 starving people building a makeshift camp by the roadside. Maneno Mutagemba Justin, their chief - a young man with sore, reddish eyes - explains what happened. "The Interahamwe came into our village. They killed and they raped our women. Now they have stolen our houses and told us never to come back." People fled in all directions, losing their husbands or children. Nobody is quite sure how many relatives they have lost forever. "We have no food here, and we left everything behind. We have no pots, no pans, no water." These people live a long drawn-out postscript to Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century philosopher who warned that in the absence of a state, life will be: "Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Yet the most piercing image of pain I see in Congo is not in places like this. It is not in the pygmy village where children with sweet distended bellies sleep with their families in the tea-bushes because they are terrified of being beheaded by the militias. It is not even in the eyes of the man Oona King and I see being casually beaten to death by a mob on the road one moody afternoon, another unrecorded Congolese write-off that we swiftly speed away from. No, it is the women carrying more than their own bodyweight in wood or coal or sand, all day, every day. By every Congolese roadside, there are women with ropes tearing into their foreheads as they bind a massive load on to their backs. With so few horses, so few cars and so few roads, starving women are used here as pack-horses, transporting anything that needs to be moved on their backs for 50p a day. They are given the quaint title of "porters".

Francine Chacopawa is 30 but she looks much older, her faced lined and cratered in a complex topography of pain. Her spine is curved, her skin is rough and broken, her hands calloused. When she laboriously puts down the wood she is carrying, she has a red canyon in her forehead where the rope was, rimmed with sores that weep from the rubbing. "This is the rope that keeps my household alive," she says. It is the war that has reduced her to this state. "Since the war started, you can't farm in peace, and the children are starving, so I prefer to die in this work... My husband cannot get a job, so this is what I have to do. I leave at five o'clock in the morning and get back at seven o'clock at night. I am worried my children are running away to look for food, because we only get to eat once a day. When I get home, my husband gets angry and asks why I have been away so long. We have suffered so much. The children we bring into the world are forced to be porters as well. We are the most unhappy people in the world."

She tells me the pack she is carrying weighs 200lb, and I write this off as understandable hyperbole. Then my translator and the UN driver load her pack on to my back (with great difficulty). I immediately fall to my knees. I stagger up and manage to stumble a few feet before falling over again. I am almost crying in pain; my back aches for weeks. This is Francine's life. She does not even stop on Sundays. "How can I? We must eat," she says. Portering has made her miscarry twice, and Francine says she has seen women die by the side of the road, buckled under their loads. I ask her when she will stop portering. She shrugs, and says nothing. Her eyes say: "When I die." The wood is heaved back on to her back, and she staggers away, the rope rubbing against her sores.

VI The Head of State Without a State

Joseph Kabila is surrounded by crocodiles. We are standing by the back wall of the White House, the slimline presidential palace in Kinshasa, and the rippling, reptile-infested Congo river rings around us. His house looks like a well-kept municipal library in an American town, a world away from the psycho-kitsch of the Mobutu era. The President's eyes have narrowed. "How long have you been here, to think you can write about Congo?" he asks, unsmiling. I say I have been here a fortnight. He nods slightly. "Then that's OK."

Kabila does not like talking to journalists. Indeed, he does not like talking to anyone - he has conspicuously failed to turn up at his own election rallies over the past few months. I have been smuggled in at the end of his meeting with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region, a collection of decent British politicians who have come to try to erode the worst humanitarian crisis in the world by inches. "I want to see some quick wins [for the Congolese people] from the presidential election," he says, assuming he will win the looming polls - the first in Congo since 1960. He then rattles off a list of improvements he hopes to implement to prove that democracy works - better water supplies, better schooling.

He offers up these platitudes in absent English, his handsome face covered with a light sprinkling of stubble that seems to be greying in the sun. He became President at the age of 29 when his father was pinned down and executed in a failed coup in 2001. At that moment the reluctant son of the Big Man was thrust from a life of army drills and watching martial arts movies to being in a charge of the world's biggest war zone. Neckless and nervous, he says his two minutes' worth of stump speech now and then closes up. He signals to his Versace-suited security guards that it is time for him to leave. My five minutes of questions - more than any other journalist gets - have been greeted with a polite stonewall of banality.

The White House has a feel of unreality. It is a hologram of power, the simulacrum of a functioning country. Kabila is in the surreal position of being head of state without a state, President of the Democratic Vacuum of Congo. He has no levers of power to pull. As I discovered later in my journey, he has no army worthy of the name, he has no police force, he cannot guard his own borders or build his own schools. From the sealed calm of the palace, I look over a wall and see the real Congo walking past - people slumped against walls or busy doing nothing or frantically fending off hunger any way they can. The fantasy of a functioning country dies outside his own brickwork.

Since his father died, Kabila has been trying to glue together a nation from the shattered fragments. In 2002, he negotiated the Lusaka Accords, in which the invading countries promised to remove their armies. The global price of coltan had collapsed, so Rwanda's interest was waning. Besides, the withdrawing countries realised they could suck the mineral marrow from Congo without the costly business of occupation, simply by setting up Congolese militias as their proxies on their way out the door. Kabila tried to out-bribe powerful militia leaders by offering them a place at the heart of government. That's why, of his four vice presidents, three have their own private armies. To watch over this "peace process", the UN sent in 17,000 peacekeepers for a country the size of Western Europe.

At the core of Kabila's project to make Congo into one nation with one government is brassage - the integration of the militias. At squalid camps across the country, the militiamen who have been raping and murdering are invited to hand in their weapons and join the new national army. I head for Camp Saio, a camp outside Bukavu where men with Samuel L Jackson sunglasses and cheekbones that could cut butter are milling and mulling as they wait for "reintegration". Places like this are the key to Congo's future. The country's success stands or falls on whether the militiamen can be coaxed to come here and slowly build a state. Dr Adolphe Tumba, the head of the camp, takes me trudging through the mud on a tour.

In the first room I see, there are nine stinking beds. Men are sitting, rotting plaster covering their wounds. In the corner is a soldier shivering in his bed, his face covered with the lesions that come with the final stages of Aids. He opens his eyes - they recoil, wounded by the light. They close again as he curls wearily into a tight ball. I ask the men what life was like on the front line. "We ate. We had food there," they snap back. I ask again, assuming they misunderstood. "We had food at the front line. It was better. Why did you come here without something for us to eat?" They last ate two days ago. They have not received their $5-a-month wages for 40 days. They are starving.

A UN source warned me: "The people in that camp are going out and rampaging into the nearby villages. They do it for survival. They steal to get by. Yesterday they killed a man, the day before they killed a woman and some kids. It's all done by men in uniform coming out of that camp." Joseph, a 22-year-old, tells me he joined up when he was a teenager because his village was attacked by the Rwandans. "They killed my father, my grandfather and my little sister. So I decided to join Mai-Mai [a Congolese militia]. I can't count how many people I killed. I did it for six years."

His friends gather round, and some of them are more eager to brag about their kill rates. They remind me of kids on some estates I have visited, bragging about their Asbos. Are they telling the truth, or is this teenage display? As they become more and more animated describing their killing sprees, as their eyes become wider and their stories more vivid, our UN escort begins to panic and tells us we must leave. "Quickly!" he calls.

As we drive away, I realise it is not enough that our greed for resources started this war - it is vandalising any chance of bringing it to an end. While these state-building camps can offer only starvation and a sometimes-never $5 wage, Unicef says the militias are offering the same men $60 a month to carry on seizing and raping and killing. They can afford it because they still control most of the coltan, gold and diamond mines, and Western and Chinese companies are still snapping up the sparklers they offer. So long as the militias can continue to use our money to outbid the national government, there will never be a unified state in Congo, and life will continue to be a live-action replay of Thomas Hobbes' bleakest descriptions.

And yet, even the best case scenario - effective brassage, a unified army, a coherent state - carries with it blood-drenched risks. What if once Kabila gets control of the country, he morphs into a Mobutu or a Mugabe? Then all this nation-building will turn out to have been an exercise in capacity-building for a murderer. Who is this man with a neckless, nervous gaze? A rogue source at the British Embassy who has high-level dealings with the regime ponders over dinner: "There are essential two theories about Kabila," he says. "The first is that he is a good man surrounded by shits. The second is that he is one of the shits. Let's assume the first is true - what difference does it make? He is surrounded by Rumsfelds and Cheneys, friends of the father who would kill him if he stepped out of line. There is a large group around him whose finances and even their impunity from charges in the Hague depend on him staying in power. Would they allow him to lose power, or even to share it too much? Really?"

At times, it seems Congo is lost in a fog of moral ambiguity. Everybody agrees the state needs to be unified, and there seems to be only one state on offer - Kabila's - given the near-certainty he will win the election. An aid agency head says: "In this country, all you can ask about a politician is - is this person corrupt and self-seeking and doesn't give a damn about Congo, or is this person corrupt and self-seeking but wants what's best for Congo too? Of course Kabila's circle is corrupt. To have power in this country you must be corrupt. It's a corrupt system." The best hope, it seems, is to drag Congo up from being a broken stateless war zone where millions die to a bog-standard corrupt state. To the starving soldiers of Camp Saio, watching open-mouthed and hungry as we drive away, even this sunken ambition seems optimistic.

VII Spiritual Warfare

The coven of witches is dancing and cackling in the water. They have a hose-pipe and they are spraying each other's naked bodies, squealing and laughing. One of them comes up to me, wearing a worn-out Barney the dinosaur T-shirt, and splashes some water at my face. I am in a children's home, Chez Mama Coco, an hour's drive from Kinshasa, and the place is filled with starved witch-children who have been thrown out by their parents for displaying signs of being under the influence of Satan. Some have been burned and slashed, and some mutilated. One of the workers introduces me to a child - they do not know his name because he has not spoken since he arrived, but they call him Fidel - and tugs down his trousers. Where his penis once was, there is nothing but an angry red scab. "His mother cut it off during the exorcism," he says.

This is another consequence of our war. Herve Cheuzeville, the outgoing Head of Mission for Warchild, explains: "The idea of withcraft has always existed in Congo, but it is new to accuse children of it. It never happened before. It is a result of the terrible traumas of the past six years."

The Combat Spirituel church in Bukavu consists of an immense veranda filled with benches, with a neat white building attached. These churches have been pioneers of Congo's 21st-century witch-hunts, and when I arrive at their Sunday service, they greet me with whoops and hallelujahs. The evangelical preacher at the podium has a kind of Christian Pan's People dancing behind him, and he exclaims: "We salute God by dancing!" The congregation contains over 1,000 people, and they look more like the crowd at a football match than at a dreary Church of England ceremony. They blow whistles, jump up and down, and dance wildly. A man with a miraculous story about how he was cured of Aids through the power of prayer takes to the platform. I am told that if I want to talk witchcraft, however, I need to return late on Thursday, when the purgings and exorcisms happen.

I come back, and Papa Enoch Boonga - the "spiritual co-ordinator" - is waiting for me with a 14-year-old witch. I am led into the little house. The lights are switched off, and Papa Enoch produces a lantern that lights his face and casts a long shadow. In his slow, rhythmic French, he begins to tell me how: "Satan is waging war on the Congolese people. He comes to kill and hate. The answer to Satan's campaign against us is spiritual combat." That is his cue to drag out Clarice. She is a small girl wrapped in a big woollen cardigan. In a low, blank rote, her eyes cast down, she says: "I was taught sorcery when I was 12. My grandmother turned me into a witch by giving me a doughnut to eat."

Enoch looks at me triumphantly. "This is how it works! They give evil food!" He takes over from Clarice's halting speech. "Then the grandmother came at night in spiritual form and said, 'I gave you the doughnut to eat, now you must give me your little sister to eat.' She was so frightened she said, 'OK, OK,' and the next day her little sister fell ill and died. Then her grandmother demanded she break the leg of her mother, so when he mother was out gathering wood, she fell and broke her leg. Now the girl started to feel the power of sorcery and began to transform herself into a dog or a cat."

I keep looking at Clarice in disbelief, but then I realise she thinks I am glaring in condemnation and I look away. As Enoch speaks, the chanting behind us from the main service is getting louder and louder - "Out Satan, out!" hundreds of people cry, clawing at invisible demons in the air. He continues, "Her father is an artisinal miner and he stopped being able to find anything because of her sorcery. They fell into poverty."

I have to interrupt. I ask Clarice, softly: "Do you really think it is your fault your little sister died?" "Yes," she says. Her eyes remain fixed on the floor. "It was actually her parents who realised she was a witch," Enoch says. "They were very worried about their lives going bad, and they went to church and prayed and God told them what the problem was." He says they conducted an exorcism of Clarice, and, yes, it was tough. "When you cast Satan out, you almost destroy the person, but they come back with Jesus Christ in their heart."

As I look into Clarice's downcast eyes, I realise it is not only the physical landscape of Congo that lies in ruins. The psychological landscape has been trashed. The war has left girls like her in a society littered with superstition landmines that will not be cleared away for decades. She limps away, back to a life soaked in self-hate.

VIII - Packing Out the Albert Hall

The last time there was a holocaust in Congo, British and American people reacted with a great national revulsion. Books like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Crime of the Congo topped the bestseller lists, millions petitioned parliament to act, and the Royal Albert Hall was packed out with mass meetings detailing the Congo's long nightmare. A century on, the words and analyses of that great campaign still ring true. Joseph Conrad called it "the vilest scramble for loot that has ever disfigured the human conscience" - words that would make a perfect introduction to the reports of the UN Panel of Experts now.

But today, these four million people have died in the dark, unnoticed and unmourned. The generations living in the West today have said nothing while the country has been reduced to near-Leopoldian levels of desperation by the scramble for loot, conducted on our behalf and for our benefit. The average life-expectancy in Congo is 43 and falling. I did not see any elderly people on my journey; they do not exist. In a country where the war is laughably referred to as "winding down", a World Trade Center-full of people is butchered every two days, and in the lost rural areas I could not reach, bubonic plague has made a triumphant come-back. A health minister says in despair: "I have been told by the UN to prepare a plan for avian flu. I had to write back and say I am powerless to deal with the plague, so what am I supposed to do about chickens?"

This war was launched by nations that sensed - rightly - that our desire for coltan and diamonds and gold far outweighed our concern for the lives of black people. They knew that we would keep on buying, long after the UN had told us time and again that people were dying to provide our mobiles and games consoles and a girl's best friend. Today, we still buy, and the British Government - along with the rest of the democratic world - obstructs any attempt to introduce legally enforceable regulations to stop corporations trading in Congolese blood. They ignore the UN's warnings that: "Without the wealth generated by the illegal exploitation of natural resources arms cannot be bought, hence the conflict cannot be perpetuated," and insist that voluntary regulations - asking corporations to be nice to Africans - is "the most effective route".

In Bukavu, a 29-year-old human rights campaigner called Bertrand Bisimwa summarised his country's situation for me with cruel concision. "Since the 19th century, when the world looks at Congo it sees a pile of riches with some black people inconveniently sitting on top of them. They eradicate the Congolese people so they can possess the mines and resources. They destroy us because we are an inconvenience." As he speaks, I picture the raped women with bullets burying through their intestines and try to weigh them against the piles of blood-soaked electronic goods sitting beneath my Christmas tree with their little chunks of Congolese metal whirring inside. Bertrand smiles and says, "Tell me - who are the savages? Us, or you?"

Congo: A Hell on Earth for Women, René Lefort, Sep 18 2003.

Le Nouvel Observateur (liberal weekly), Paris, France

War, ethnic conflict, and the greed of neighboring countries have turned the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo into an utterly lawless place. And as if massacres and systematic plundering by armed bands weren’t bad enough, the horror of rape is everywhere, too.

“She came in last evening. Five armed men had raped her the night before, a few kilometers from here,” explains Mathilde Muhindo, director of a social assistance agency of the Roman Catholic diocese of Bukavu, on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “This morning, she was still crying. I cried with her,” says Muhindo, in whose eyes traces of tears are visible. Through a window outside her office, you see the profile of a woman, her shoulders slumped, her face buried in her hands, sitting crumpled on the edge of a bed. Looking away from the building, the eye meets an infinitely tranquil countryside. In the distance, the hills of Rwanda emerge from the mist, which lends a deep gray hue to the mirror-smooth waters of Lake Kivu below.

“It was during 2000 that we began to see women coming in with the worst lesions I’ve ever seen,” remembers Dr. Denis Mukwege, director of Panzi hospital, a few kilometers from the center of Bukavu, which is the capital of South Kivu province. “They would tell fanciful, fabricated stories to explain away their injuries.”

It all began in 1994. Rwanda’s Patriotic Front, dominated by ethnic Tutsis, seized power in that country and halted the genocidal attacks against the Tutsi community planned and perpetrated by the Hutus, in which an estimated 800,000 people died. Perpetrators of the genocide fled to neighboring Congo, herding along with them 1.5 million Hutu refugees whom they then forcibly enrolled in a struggle against the new Rwandan regime. To stamp out the insurgency, the Kigali regime launched its first war within Congo’s borders in 1996, during which 200,000 of these refugees—men, women, the elderly, and children—were slaughtered as “genocide criminals” because they fled the advance of the Rwandan army. With the collapse of Congo’s economy and the disappearance of any semblance of law and order, violence in eastern Congo became commonplace. It’s a culture characterized by acute spasms of violence, fueled by ethnic hatred that is fed in turn by confrontations between radicals from both of the Rwandan sides—all of which has spilled over into Congo. This violence includes rape, carried out intentionally as a genocidal act.

Later, security considerations were overcome by greed, the primary cause of the so-called “second war,” which began in 1998. A number of “elite networks,” as defined by a hard-hitting U.N. report, comprising military commanders, political leaders, and unscrupulous entrepreneurs in Kigali, Kampala, and beyond, backed up by international mafias, plundered the resources of eastern Congo (coltan ore, diamonds, gold, hardwoods) and turned the region’s economy to their personal profit. To accomplish their aims, they had to resort continuously to force, but without betraying their true objectives. In the “second war,” Rwanda and Uganda masked their predatory intentions by clandestinely maintaining regular or irregular troops, and above all by fostering armed bands, organized along ethnic lines, forming and reforming according to the current needs of their masters. The battles among these bands have rarely led to major victories or defeats; the whole idea is to maintain insecurity and justify the militarization that enables the massive plundering. Amid all this, the local people have paid a terrible price.

According to the U.N. report, which was published nearly a year ago, the number of “excess deaths” in Congo directly attributable to the Rwandan and Ugandan occupation can be estimated at between 3 million and 3.5 million. This conflict has been the deadliest since World War II. In some areas of Congo, investigations by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) have shown that one in four children dies before the age of 5, and that one tenth of the population dies annually. “These areas have the highest mortality rates in the world.” Finally, acts of sexual violence accompanying the carnage have been without precedent in their frequency, their systematic nature, their brutality, and the perversity of the way they’re planned and staged.

According to a U.N. department, “on average, some 40 women were raped every day between October 2002 and February 2003 in and around the town of Uvira,” a town with a population of between 200,000 and 300,000. A network of eight local nongovernmental organizations, supported by the International Rescue Committee, each month takes in nearly 1,000 women, girls, and boys who have been raped in North and South Kivu, the latter province being these organizations’ focal point. Mathilde Muhindo’s center alone admitted 145 such people in June. Overwhelmed by such numbers, some of the centers will now admit women only in groups of no more than 10. Various Catholic parochial bodies, which play a key role in providing first aid to the victims, now take turns in furnishing assistance; this is the most they can do.

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Not every victim comes to the aid centers; the women who do are the ones who know that help is available, and who are strong enough to walk there—sometimes a journey of several days. Because the rapes are usually accompanied by a systematic pillage of their homes, these women sometimes have to borrow clothing from a neighbor. What’s more, before they set out, they have to scrape up enough money to bribe the soldiers at each roadblock, and for the medical care they think they’re going to have to pay for: Few of them know that the aid centers charge practically nothing, an exception in a country where the public health system is supposed to pay for itself. First and foremost, the victims who do seek help are those who have dared break the taboo, the stigma that attaches to any woman who’s been raped.

Typically, an attack begins a few hours after nightfall. After encircling a village, armed men divide into groups that alternately plunder and rape. Around 2 or 3 a.m., they grab men from the village to help carry the booty back to their base. The most ragtag of the armed bands, the jungle-dwellers, the Mayi Mayi (originally local self-defense militiamen) and armed Hutus—genocide criminals or survivors of the massacres in the “first war”—will also kidnap women and girls from the target village. These women serve as domestic and sexual slaves for weeks or months, and they are sometimes traded from one armed band to another.

Since the beginning of 2002, the sexual assaults have followed patterns so common that they are becoming commonplace. Several men gang-rape a woman, repeatedly. The husband is tied up in the hut, the children are brought in; the whole family is obliged to witness the humiliation of the wife and mother. “Eight or 10 of them raped me,” one victim recounts. “My husband told me so.” The victim passed out well before the men had finished with her. Increasingly, the assailants force fathers to commit incest with daughters, or brothers with sisters. They even sodomize men, a practice that is unimaginable in the African countryside, even as part of consensual sex. The victims range in age from 4 to 80.

“She’s only 14,” whispers a hospital aide, at the side of a young girl whose eyes are half-shut with pain. The room, which holds a couple dozen patients, is oddly empty and silent; in most African hospitals, busy, noisy families surround the bed of each patient. Here, most of the women patients are wearing catheters.

“The smell is awful,” a doctor has warned beforehand. Seated on a bed, a woman knits a ball of sparkling white wool and another of bright green, traditional colors for the clothing of newborns. Across the aisle, a man chants prayers, bobbing his head, his hand touching the forehead of a motionless patient. About a fifth of the 250 beds in Panzi hospital are occupied by women who undergo as many as six operations to repair the sexual injuries to their bodies, or be treated for mutilation and other wounds. In this hospital, the sexually assaulted victims are two or three times as numerous as civilians treated for gunshot wounds, and four or five times as numerous as wounded soldiers. These are very significant ratios concerning the victims of eastern Congo’s interrelated conflicts.

Some 19 percent of the female victims test positive for HIV/AIDS, according to one medical source; another source puts the level at 30 percent. Fully half of the victims are syphilitic, a condition that greatly increases future risks of HIV infection. Health authorities estimate that two thirds of the fighters—regulars and irregulars—have HIV/AIDS. To a populace ripped apart by a long, cruel war, feeling abandoned by the national capital, Kinshasa, and the world, these statistics on HIV/AIDS are so horrifying that leading public figures in Kivu have denounced what they see as a Machiavellian extermination plot, if not attempted genocide. Another argument is raised: The wave of rapes is said to have begun with the regular Rwandan army, early in 2000, around the time when Kigali decided to use eastern Congo as a buffer, having abandoned as impractical the idea of turning the entire country into a Rwandan satellite. Today, however, everyone agrees that all the armed groups, without exception, commit rape en masse, with the worst offenders probably the armed Hutus.

Why? Mathilde Muhindo speaks of “violence for violence’s sake,” because “these men no longer know why they’re fighting, nor whom.” But the wave of barbarism is seen by others as being primarily a weapon of war. “In every case, this is a planned effort of destabilization, not uniquely by force of arms, but also by AIDS and starvation,” says a high-placed religious figure in Bukavu. Planned? No irrefutable proof has been produced. But in eastern Congo, rape—extremely violent rape—“is soldiers’ work,” one of the rapists told one of his victims. The guilty parties get off scot-free, with rare exceptions, even when locals manage to capture them and hand them over to the authorities. The military commands pretty much let things take their course, including the commanders of the Rwandan army, despite its reputation for good discipline. The most convincing proof of intent, as Human Rights Watch has pointed out, is that while the Rwandan troops and guerrillas more or less respect military rules of conduct on their own territory, this restraint disappears when they operate in North and South Kivu. The sexual violence against women constitutes a “war within the war,” Human Rights Watch insists. “These rapes are a show of force,” asserts a doctor who treats the victims. “The point is to show the husband, the family, the village, that they’re all powerless. It’s as if the rapists are saying: We can do anything we want to you.” Humiliate, terrorize, all the while stressing the victims’ total absence of recourse, until the populace resigns itself to obeying these outside masters. “We didn’t go into Congo to be popular, and certainly not to show the Congolese what good fellows we are,” Paul Kagame, the strongman of the Kigali regime, once warned.

Economic destabilization is another product of this state of affairs: agricultural production and trade have plummeted. Villagers have learned to seek refuge far away from their homes during the night, but now the assaults take place in broad daylight, in the fields and on the footpaths. And in this land, it’s the women who work the fields. As the result of the widespread violence, they now form up in groups to work a single plot belonging to one of them, hoping for safety in numbers. It’s the women, too, who carry on petty trading between the towns and the villages, but the threat of rape makes it increasingly risky to travel for trade. Malnutrition is soaring. “There is a deliberate policy of emptying the countryside and forcing the people into town, where there’s nothing for them to eat,” the high-placed religious figure says. It’s a policy that locks attackers and victims into a hellish spiral, suicidal for the attackers, murderous for the victims. As violence grows, production shrinks; as the attackers find less and less to steal, they become increasingly violent in their extortions. And no wonder: the leaders of these bands pay no salary and provide no food, with the exception of the Rwandan regulars.

Moral and Social Destabilization
“I was forced to open my wrap for someone other than my husband. The rapist reduced me to nothing,” is the way the victims put it, knowing that their husbands, children, and the entire village are aware of what happened. Everyone—women and men alike—feel an immense shame. “I’m catching a disease that I didn’t deserve,” victims typically say. A woman attorney put it like this: “In our custom, a man will refuse to take back a woman who has had sex with another man, even if it was a case of rape. It’s considered an act of infidelity.” And so, many of these rape victims are repudiated by their husbands, in a society where an unmarried woman is relegated to the bottom of the social ladder. Finally, the victims are also stripped of their kitchen utensils and cookware, as well as of their simplest farming tools—how, then, are they to assume what they consider their main duty: providing for and feeding their family?

“Since the Mobutu crisis,” said the leader of a nongovernmental organization for women, referring to the fall of the long-time Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, “It’s the women who have taken over from the men in supporting their families.” Many of the rapists were recruited or forcibly enlisted from the ranks of men dispossessed at the end of Mobutu’s rule, and some wonder whether they’re now wreaking vengeance on what they see as the newly dominant women. Whatever the case may be, the NGO leader says, “In raping these women, they want to drive them to their knees, and thus drive all of us to our knees.”

“Despite everything, these women remain very strong,” says Karin Wachter, who directs a rape assistance program for the International Rescue Committee. In the meetings Wachter attends with the victims, they ask primarily for hoes, seeds, and pots. It’s this strength that a religious sister who specializes in trauma recovery is trying to bring out in the victims. Repeatedly, she asks them: “What did they not manage to take away from you?” until the women find the answers themselves: their love for their children, always; and for their husbands, usually. Over and over, this sister has the victims relate the circumstances of their rape, getting them to dwell on what they did to resist. At this, the sister says, they begin to stand up straighter, as if they’re recovering pride and dignity. They remember: “I fought with every ounce of my strength.”

Martine’s ‘black book’
She’s a tireless activist for democracy and development. Martine—not her real name—remembers the exact date when she started keeping what she calls her “black book.” It was her birthday, a little more than a year ago. One hundred thirty-six names are written down in the notebook, names that only Martine knows, names of women raped outside their villages, far from inquiring eyes or any possible help. They tell her their stories, and she promises them absolute secrecy.

Martine has scratched out 58 names—the women she persuaded to seek treatment or assistance, often in secret. For the 78 others, the dilemma continues. “Advice isn’t enough,” Martine sighs. “These women need treatment, too. But I have to respect their wishes...”

More openly, she engages in mediation, trying to persuade the husbands of rape victims not to send their wives away. “And that’s why I need a motorcycle,” Martine blurts out with a small, embarrassed laugh, as if to apologize for asking for help.

Tantalum: Congo Conflict Mineral, Melissa Pistilli, Feb 12 2010.

Most people today are familiar with the term “blood diamond” and the gruesome reality the name invokes. Global pushback against the trade in conflict diamonds from regions steeped in brutal slavery and guerrilla warfare led to the adoption of the Kimberley Process by those in the industry and in the global community actively trying to block sales of diamonds used to finance war.

Blood diamonds are just one story in a long history of violence linked with the exploitation of people and resources that has plagued humankind for millenniums.

Another example of this shameful side of human nature is taking place today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo). The minerals involved include gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum, which are used to fund murderous militias caught up in a war between two peoples that has spilled over the borders from Congo’s neighbours.

Congo Conflict Background

The 1994 Rwandan genocide was the catalyst that pushed Zaire, later to be renamed DR Congo, into the deadliest conflict since WWII. After the overthrow of the Hutu regime in neigbouring Rwanda, over two million Hutus, including many of the militiamen who committed numerous atrocities, flooded over the borders of eastern Zaire to escape possible retribution from the Tutsi.

The fleeing Hutu militia members found allies with Mobutu’s government and soon began violently persecuting the Zaire’s Tutsi population. Of course, Rwanda’s new Tutsi government provided support for Tutsi militias in Zaire fighting the Hutu and Mobutu’s troops. The Tutsi also formed alliance with other Ugandan-backed groups and managed to overthrow Mobutu. It was then that Zaire became DR Congo.

However, the newly installed president Laurent Kabila was soon ousted by Rwanda after he failed to throw out the Hutu militia. Kabila sought the aid of Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe and the region fell into a bloody five-year war known as the Second Congo War in which over five million Africans perished.

The war supposedly ended in 2003, however the region of eastern DR Congo is still under its shadow. General Laurent Nkunda, a Tutsi warlord believed to have the backing of Rwanda had been set on eradicating the area of any Hutu members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who he claimed the DR Congo government was supporting.

In late 2008, Rwanda and DR Congo forces came together to fight the FDLR in North and South Kivu provinces and General Nkunda was exiled to Rwanda where he lives under house arrest. Unfortunately, the move did not pay off and gruesome large-scale murders and rapes are still occurring at the hands of both rebels and government troops even with the area supposedly under UN peacekeeping operations.

Conflict Minerals in the Global Marketplace

Natural resources like tin, tungsten and tantalum have been branded with the moniker “conflict minerals” because the militias enslave locals to mine the metals and then use the funds garnered from their sale to help finance their bloody operations.

Sadly, it’s become apparent that even the Congolese army is taking part in the exploitation. Several thousand of the army soldiers are actually former rebels once under the command of General Nkunda and are seeking to establish their control over the region’s mineral resources.

“They didn’t integrate into the army, they took it over and now control huge parts of [the region],” says an anonymous former diplomat.

Once extracted, the conflict minerals are then taken to trading houses where they are prepared for sale in the global market and purchased by companies willing to ignore the illegal and inhumane way the ore was procured. Eventually, the processed ore makes its way into everyday items we Westerners often take for granted like cell phones, handheld gaming devices, and laptop computers.

Rising Backlash and Organizations Taking Action

According to Global Witness, “the illicit exploitation of natural resources in [Congo], and the accompanying serious human rights abuses, would not have taken place on such a large scale if there had not been customers willing to trade in these resources.”

Concerned organizations like the Enough Project, created by the Center for American Progress, and Global Witness, who helped bring the blood diamond controversy to global attention, along with the United Nations and other governmental agencies are bringing increasing pressure on those in the tantalum industry to ensure consumer products become conflict mineral free.

In later commentaries we’ll discuss the specific efforts these organizations are making towards creating a global marketplace free of conflict minerals, what these efforts mean for the future of the tantalum industry and what ethical investing opportunities exist in this sector of the mineral resource market.

Tracing the Tantalum Trade–Part One, Melissa Pistilli, Feb 17 2010.

I’ve always been behind the times when it comes to the latest technological gadgets. While many of my friends were trading in their pagers for cell phones I was still relying on land lines and that now elusive dinosaur the payphone.

Today, I’ve had two cell phones in my life and I never gave a thought at all as to what went into making them before I learned more about the ongoing human degradation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Inside your cell phone is a mineral known as tantalum and its use allows manufacturers to make phones so small they are barely recognizable from that monstrosity your dad use to lug around in his briefcase.

Tantalum is found in the capacitor that rests atop the fiber glass circuit board in your phone. While tantalum capacitors, which function as energy storage untis, are found in a wide range of electronic devices, nearly 35 per cent are made specifically for cell phones.

However, the advancements in technology tantalum offers come at a very high price. Tantalum has the unfortunate distinction of belonging to a class of metals known as “conflict minerals”, particularly the three T’s: tin, tungsten and tantalum; all of which are mined under soul-crushing conditions in the eastern provinces of the DR-Congo.

“US consumers play a direct but inadvertent role in perpetuating the violence in Congo,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project created by the Center of American Progress, speaking at a recent forum hosted by St Michael’s College.

Proceeds from the mining operations under the control of Rwanda-linked FDLR militia groups and even corrupt members of the Congolese army help to purchase weapons used in a bloody conflict that has taken the lives of over 5 million people in the last 15 years, involved the rape of countless women and children, and the dislocation of scores of the population to neighboring regions.

Because the electronics industry is the largest consumer of tantalum from the DR-Congo, NGO’s and concerned consumers are urging companies like Apple, Hewlett Packard, Intel, Nokia, and others to conduct stringent supply chain audits and create strict policies that ensure conflict minerals like tantalum are not making their way into cell phones, MP3 players, laptops, DVD players and video game systems.

“If there was no ready outlets for these minerals on the international market, the capacity for armed groups to carry on their brutal warfare would be hugely reduced,” said Global Witness campaigner Daniel Balint-Kurti.

Some electronics companies like Dell, Intel, Motorola, Phillips and Hewlett-Packard are bending to the pressure and reviewing their supply chains to determine whether or not conflict minerals are making it into their products. HP conducted an investigation a few years back into the origins of the tantalum used in capacitors. That initial review, according to the company, found no direct link between HP products and the conflict zones of the DR-C; however, subsequent investigations have not been so absolute.

“Because our suppliers are not using material from the DRC that gave us some comfort. But to this day, there is still no certification mechanism that can assure us wholeheartedly that they are not sourced from the DRC,” said Zoe McMahon, manager of supply chain social and environmental responsibility at HP.

Major electronics firms like HP claim the supply chains for their products are complex and difficult to unravel. But, groups like Enough and Global Witness say research conducted by themselves and the United Nations proves otherwise.

Members of the Enough Project, for example, say they have travelled to the eastern provinces of the Congo to track the flow of conflict minerals like tantalum from mine to consumer. “From this ground level view, the conflict minerals supply chain is far less intimidating than the industry would have consumers believe,” report Sasha Lezhnev and John Prendergast.

Cell phone minerals fuel deadly Congo conflict, Tristan McConnell, Jan 19 2010.

GOMA, eastern Congo and NAIROBI, Kenya — Last year was a terrible one for the people of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo as it was marked — once again — by murder, rape, violence and abuse on a horrific scale.

In that respect it was much like the year before, and the one before that. Some aid groups estimate that over 5 million people have died since 1998, mostly from disease and malnutrition.

The seemingly endless and faraway nature of the wars in Congo make them easy to ignore.

Until, that is, you realize that the internet-enabled smart phone beeping in your pocket, or the handheld games console that whiles away dull hours contain inside them little pieces of eastern Congo.

Coltan is one of the minerals, including tin, gold and diamonds, dug from the muddy hillsides of eastern Congo by miners working in slave-like conditions.

Profits from the sale of Congo's minerals not only fuel the fight, they may be the reason for the continuing conflict, according to the U.S.-based advocacy group Enough, in a report published this month.

“Contrary to critics who argue that the militarization of mining in eastern Congo is purely symptomatic of a dysfunctional security sector and poor governance, conflict minerals are both a cause and consequence of Congo’s dilapidated state apparatus,” wrote researchers David Sullivan and Noel Atama.

Last year a United Nations-backed offensive was launched to clear out a brutal Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), some of whose leaders are blamed for Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

The offensive, called Kimia II, has not succeeded and this month Enough warned that, “the pursuit of mineral resources by armed elements on all sides of the conflict has only accelerated.”

Late last year a U.N. group of experts revealed just how the international minerals trade fueled the fighting in eastern Congo but human rights abuse and resource exploitation in Congo have gone hand in hand for hundreds of years. In the 19th century, Belgium’s King Leopold annexed the entire country to steal its ivory and rubber and brutalized the people in the process. His emissaries would kill reluctant workers and hack off their hands to prove bullets weren't being wasted.

With the abrupt end of colonialism half a century ago, the foreign white exploiters were replaced by a rapacious black elite. For decades President Mobutu Sese Seko funded his dictatorship by treating the country’s treasure trove of raw materials as a personal piggy bank. When his rule imploded, a fight for resources erupted that continues, fragmented and confusing, to this day.

The Enough report sums up eastern Congo's reality simply: “With only a few guns and shovels, local warlords can establish themselves as a group that must be reckoned with, financing their own growth into a militia powerful enough to demand a seat at the table in negotiations and eventually a position in the army — from where they can continue to profit from the minerals trade.”

Integration into the national army (the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or FARDC) is the aim of many of the rebels because as government soldiers they can continue their activities with virtual impunity.

When rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested last January, thousands of his fighters simply got new uniforms and carried on as before. In fact Nkunda's former rebels of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) since their integration into the Congo army have expanded their control over minerals and resources, according to the Enough report, U.N. experts and observers on the ground in eastern Congo.

“They didn’t integrate into the army, they took it over and now control huge parts of [the region],” a former diplomat told GlobalPost during a recent visit to Goma.

As dawn breaks in eastern Congo, clunky childlike wooden bicycles called "chukudus" careen down a dirt road one after the other loaded with sacks of "makala" (charcoal).

Their riders grin at their breakneck speed as they hurtle towards the city of Goma and the coal dust-covered market where the sacks sell for up to $35 each.

Charcoal sales bring in an estimated $30 million a year for armed groups that control the trade (including both the rebel FDLR and the national army) profiting from the exploitation of Congo’s impressive forests. That translates into a lot of guns and bullets and is reason enough to keep fighting.

Another day and another misty Congolese dawn breaks over a landscape of muddy pits and stony hillsides where scores of men in ragged clothes, clutching little sacks pick through rocks by hand looking for lumps of dull gray coltan. The men who control the mine stand watch, AK47 rifles in hand, highlighting the coercive nature of the trade.

Dirty sacks full of the mineral are transported to towns such as Goma where "comptoirs" or trading houses prepare the minerals for sale to regional middlemen. From there the coltan enters the world market with multinational companies turning a blind eye to question marks over the minerals’ origins.

Charcoal finds its market among the benighted people themselves: The poorest have no option but to use this cheap fuel to cook food and boil water. At least that was the case until recently when the rangers in charge of protecting the wildlife of Virunga National Park introduced biomass briquettes as an alternative in a bid to remove the market.

But no one pretends that gold, tin or coltan finds its end users in Congo. Instead these minerals are worth fighting, killing, enslaving and raping for because rich foreign consumers want them.

As a recent review of a decade of resource exploitation in Congo published by Global Witness stated: “The illicit exploitation of natural resources in [Congo], and the accompanying serious human rights abuses, would not have taken place on such a large scale if there had not been customers willing to trade in these resources.”

And, of course, Western consumers eager to buy cell phones and other electronic gadgets that are made with the resources from them.

Cell phones and Congo's war against women, John Prendergast, Jan 7 2009.

What in the world could a policy wonk have in common with a movie actress? As it turns out, a lot. Every day we both use electronic devices that wouldn't work without raw materials from a country halfway around the world in central Africa. That country, Congo, has been torn apart by the deadliest war since World War II, where 5.4 million have perished. Its war is fueled by our inexhaustible thirst for cell phones, laptops, video games, digital recorders and other products that owe their existence to Congo's contribution to the world's mineral supply.

Remember when we learned the periodic table of elements? Three of the minerals - tantalite, tungsten and tin - are indispensable to the proper functioning of much of our electronics industry, and Congo has a good percentage of the world's supply of all three. The upshot is that feuding militias and a failed government have led to one of the highest death rates in the world, where an estimated 1,500 people die per day of war-related causes.

Congo is a country that has been raided, looted and raped for the past century and a half because of its vast natural resource wealth. Kings, corporations and countries have swooped into the Congo to steal whatever they could, leaving behind a shattered state and deeply divided communities. The latest chapter has seen the neighboring country of Rwanda in direct confrontation with Congo over the remnants of the militia that perpetrated Rwanda's genocide 14 years ago. These forces have taken up residence in Congo and are supported at times by the Congolese government. In response, Rwanda supports Congo's rebels. But at the root of all this is the scramble for resources, in which Rwanda and Congo support their rebels of choice and benefit from the minerals extracted from the areas they control.

So even though the issue we have in common is our use of products dependent on the Congo's resources, the issue that really unites us is that the Congo - with the highest rates of sexual violence globally - has become the world's most dangerous place to be a woman or a girl. This is not the first time that armies or militias have used rape as a weapon of war. But what appears to set Congo apart is the frequency of sexual assault, as well as its graphic nature. The militias in the Congo are perfecting this tool of war in a manner never seen before. The effectiveness of deploying sexual violence as a tactic of war is unquestioned. Competing forces rape in order to permanently drive communities out of contested areas.. Women are so traumatized by gang rapes and other depredations that they never want to return to their homes, too afraid to re-live their experiences. And as long as the perpetrators pay no price for their heinous crimes, there is no incentive to stop. In fact, impunity and inaction leads the militias to intensify their attacks.

That's where we come in. As we use our cell phones, computers, iPods and video games every day, we are benefiting from Congo's natural wealth. We need to stand up for the women of the Congo and let our elected officials know that we want to see an end to that violence. We need to let the electronics companies that we all buy our products from know that it matters to us where they get the raw materials that run their devices.

On Jan. 20, a new U.S. president will be sworn in. His inauguration is wildly anticipated by Africans, including those in Congo. President-elect Barack Obama will have the chance to help rectify one of the world's most egregious injustices by making the end of the Congo's war one of his policy objectives. High-level American involvement can help catalyze efforts toward peace in that shattered country.

But a president's attention won't be enough. Because of our demand for PlayStations, iPods, and BlackBerrys, we will have to use our considerable market muscle to demand from companies like Apple, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard and Nintendo that their products do not contain "conflict minerals." This will require them to change their procurement practices and ask far more questions about where their components are from.

This is not impossible. Remember the film "Blood Diamond"? A decade ago, Sierra Leone was a country in turmoil, ripped apart by battles over control of the diamond mines. Today, Sierra Leone is a functioning democracy completely at peace. The horrors there led the world to get serious about stopping them. We need to do the same for Congo, and fast. For the sake of Congo's women and girls, Congo needs us now.

The new blood diamonds, John Prendergast, Aug 1 2009.

BUKAVU, Congo - BEING HELD at gunpoint by 30 drunk and angry militia in the middle of the night on a deserted road in one of the most dangerous war zones in the world was not our plan when we started out the day. But my traveling companions and I were digging into the links between the illicit mining of Congo’s “conflict minerals’’ and a deadly war, and we didn’t expect a walk in the park. We had visited a gold mine contested by some particularly vengeful armed groups, and this militia had lost out in controlling the mine and wasn’t happy about the result. After hours of negotiations, guns poked into ribs, and death threats, we emerged relatively unscathed and $1,000 poorer. Congolese civilians, however, are rarely so fortunate.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo next week provides the opportunity to demonstrate the importance of ending the world’s most pronounced use of rape as a weapon. She will hopefully signal a greater investment in peacemaking and civilian protection by the United States. But private-sector action is equally needed. An essential ingredient for the solution will be the success of an embryonic consumer campaign in which American and European buyers of cellphones, laptops, and iPods begin to demand conflict-free electronics products that don’t source their essential materials from mines that produce deadly conflict.

This year has seen a major spike in human rights violations, in particular violence against women and girls, the abduction of children as soldiers or sex slaves, the burning of houses or entire villages, and the systematic looting of civilians. The humanitarian crisis has deepened dramatically with half a million newly displaced since the beginning of 2009. All this is fueled by a scramble for one of the world’s richest non-petroleum resource bases, overlaid by a Congolese government offensive backed by the United Nations, a destructive campaign for which Secretary Clinton should urge immediate suspension.

We interviewed a number of women who had survived horrific sexual attacks during this campaign. Systematic rape has evolved over the last dozen years of war as a tool of social control or collective punishment against civilian populations deemed supportive of opposing armed groups. All the armed groups are now using rape as a component of their military operations, to terrorize, humiliate, demoralize and subjugate targeted communities.

Ironically, the international community spends well in excess of $2 billion a year treating the symptoms of the Congolese crisis (with peacekeeping and emergency assistance), but roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of what we spend on aid and peacekeepers is spent on addressing the main fuel for its continuation: conflict minerals.

Most diplomacy seems not to recognize two dark and little-acknowledged realities: that the Congolese government actually promotes insecurity to allow its top officials to enrich themselves in the illegal smuggling of Congo’s natural resources, and neighboring Rwanda’s and Uganda’s economic growth is in part fueled by their involvement in the smuggling and violence. One mineral merchant told me he would be killed if he went on camera to talk about these issues.

Because the multinational corporations hide the direct connections between their demand for Congo’s natural resources and the destruction of human life in that country, especially women and girls, we don’t realize that the solution lies in part with us as electronics consumers.

The “blood diamonds’’ case provides a crucial precedent. Until there was general consumer uproar about the effect Western demand for a precious commodity was having on the people of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Angola, those conflicts continued to burn, with Western consumers providing all the fuel necessary to keep the wars going indefinitely. Electronics companies should pressure their suppliers to ensure that these minerals don’t originate in mines that fuel the war and corruption, and allow independent audits to prove it.

Mining could be the engine of Congo’s peaceful development. Such a result will come more quickly if companies, governments, and other stakeholders can agree on a system to trace, audit, and certify conflict-free minerals that go in our electronics products and jewelry. This would change the incentive structure away from violence and illegality toward security and rule of law in Congo. Only when it becomes more profitable to exploit the minerals legally will there be sufficient incentive for peace in Congo.

John Prendergast is co-founder of the project Enough at the Center for American Progress.

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