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General News    H2'ed 7/24/08

The Human Cost of Cheap Cell Phones

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Thanks to the kind courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, we are able to reproduce the entire Chapter 5 of Steven Hiatt's A Game as Old as Empire: The secret world of economic hitmen and the web of global coruption. See endnotes for further details.

By Kathleen Kern 

Goma’s hospital has one tent for rape victims awaiting surgery and one for victims recovering from surgery.  In the pre-op area, I held a month-old girl who was entranced by the dim electric light hanging from the ridgepole.  She arched her back and waved her arms, straining to encounter this exciting new world and oblivious of the atrocity that had created her life.

The mother told me her baby’s name was Esther. Clasping her breasts, she said she had no milk.  She did not tell me what operation she was waiting for. Perhaps her rapist(s) had caused a fistula, penetrating the wall between her rectum and vagina with penises, guns, or machetes.  Hundreds of other injuries are possible. We had seen pictures of women who had been shot in the vagina, who had had salt rubbed in their eyes until they were blind (and thus could not identify their assailants), who had been burned or had limps amputated after being raped.

A week earlier we had been in Bukavu, where we had visited the office of a human rights organization and seen glory photos of a recent massacre in the nearby village of Kanyola. The assailants were members of the Interahamwe militia that had carried out the genocide in Rwanda. They had hacked their victims to death with machetes or burned them instead of using guns, so that UN peacekeepers at a nearby base would not hear the slaughter. The human rights worker showing us the pictures had recently replaced the previous director of the agency, Pascal Kabungulu Kimbembe.  After a local Congolese army officer had threatened him, Kimbembe had been assassinated in front of his home earlier in the year.1 

These low-tech acts of barbarism engulfing eastern Congo are outgrowths of a global demand for high-tech consumer goods such as cell phones, laptop computers, and PlayStations. Coltan (short for columbite-tantalite), an ore vital for manufacturing these devices, has been a particular concern for those investigating the involvement of multinational corporations in the violence: 80% of the known coltan reserves in the world are in Congo, making it potentially as strategically important to the U.S. military as the Persian Gulf.2 But demand for gold, diamonds, copper, zinc, uranium, cobalt, cadmium, timber, and other resources in which Congo is rich has also contributed to the holocaust that has overtaken the country during the past decade.

Holocaust on the Equator

Since 1996, about 4 million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) as a direct or indirect result of civil war.3 No other conflict since WW II has resulted in such carnage. After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Hutu soldiers from the Rwandan army and the Hutu militia Interahamwe, who were responsible for the wholesale killings, fled into Congo along with more than a million Hutu noncombatants. Tutsi President Paul Kagame sent Rwandan troops into Congo in 1996, arguing that the Hutus across the border posed a threat to Rwandan security. The army massacred thousands of Hutu noncombatants who had taken refuge in Congo when Kagame came to power. Rwanda, Burundi (which also had a Tutsi government), and Uganda sent troops in 1997 to aid a Congolese rebel group under Laurent Kabila, who was attempting to overthrow Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.4 The fighting forced civilians off their lands and into mining areas, where they dug for gold, diamonds, and coltan in order to survive.

In 1997, the rebels deposed Mobutu and instilled Kabila. Citing an assassination attempt against him and the Rwandan army’s slaughter of Hutu refugees, Kabila expelled Rwandan and Ugandan forces from Congo in 1998. Rwanda again invaded, claiming that it needed to pursue Hutus threatening its security. The Ugandans, in turn, attempted to combat Ugandan rebel groups based in Congo by creating a buffer zone like the one Israel had created when it bombed and subsequently occupied southern Lebanon in the 1980s.5 In planning their invasion, Rwandan President Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni agreed to install a new president in Congo while maintaining control over the eastern part of the country near the their borders. Kabila called on Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe for help, and by 1998 eastern Congo was left in a stalemate. Uganda held the northern territory, while Rwanda controlled the southeast. Rwandan, Burundian, and Ugandan soldiers pillaged banks, factories, farms, and storage facilities in the region, loading their contents onto vehicles and shipping them back to their home countries.

The Rwandan government shipped seven years’ worth of Congo’s coltan stockpiles – about 1500 tons – from warehouses to Kigali in 1998.6 At the time, coltan was fetching about $18 a pound ($40 a kilo). Over the next few years, often using Rwandan prisoners as indentured laborers, the Rwandan military systematically stripped coltan from mines in eastern Congo and sent it back to Rwanda. The international price of coltan climbed to $30 a pound in January 2000 and then spiked to $380 the following December. (A shortage of coltan resulted in a shortage of the Sony PlayStation 2 during the 2000 Christmas season.) Since the ore requires only a pick and shovel to mine, military, political, and corporate elites could make huge profits from the labor of Rwandan prisoners or impoverished Congolese.

The brother of Ugandan President Museveni, Salim Salech, controlled three airlines, which he leased to the Ugandan military to fly troops and supplies into Congo. With the cooperation of Ugandan army officers, Congolese rebel groups, and private entrepreneurs, Saleh ensured that the planes returned to Uganda loaded with gold, timber, and coffee.  He also cashed in on the lucrative coltan mines and worked with Lebanese businessman Khalil Nazeem Ibrahim to smuggle diamonds out thru the company known as the Victoria Group – free of tax, thus depriving Congo of revenue it desperately needed.

Uganda’s and Rwanda’s export histories reveal the extent of the looting. Between 1996 and 1997, Rwanda’s coltan production doubled, giving Rwanda and its Congolese rebel allies up to $20 million a month in revenue.7 The Rwandan government claimed that the country was producing all of the coltan it was exporting – 1440 metric tons a year.8 However, the 2001 report by a UN Panel of Experts (discussed later) cites official government statistics that put the production at 83 metric tons a year.

Rwanda has no diamond mines, but its diamond exports increased from 166 carats in 1998 to 30,500 in 2000. In 1999, Uganda produced no coltan but exported 69.5 tons. In 2000 Uganda received more than $1.25 million from exporting diamonds, despite having no diamond mines. It produced 0.0044 tons of gold, but exported 10.83 tons.9

A “peace” deal signed in 2002 left President Joseph Kabila, who had replaced his assassinated father, in power. His vice presidents were four of the warlords whose militias had wreaked havoc in Congo. Over the next several years, Rwanda and Uganda continued to make incursions into the country. Rwanda sent 6,000 troops into eastern Congo in December 2004, again claiming it was dealing with Hutu rebels who posed a threat to its security.10 Rwandan troops committed massacres in North Kivu province, burning and looting everything in their path. Our delegation saw the result of this pillaging when we visited a students’ association in the university town of Bukavu almost a year later. A young man took us thru bare rooms and showed us that everything – furniture, computers, phones, and fax machines – had been stolen by Rwandan troops. Because students had spoken out against the human rights abuses of the Rwandan military, the young man told us, the Rwandan military and the Congolese militia it backs had targeted their student center.

Rape as a Weapon of War

I first came to eastern Congo in October 2005 as part of a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) delegation, to explore the possibility of setting up a violence-deterring project similar to the ones CPT has had in the Middle East and the Americas. The delegation quickly realized that the situation in Congo presented challenges our organization had not faced before. We also noted that the widespread practice of rape by all armed groups was something that most of the world, including our church constituency, was not aware of. With an eye toward publicizing these rapes, we began to focus on this issue as we met with pastors and civic leaders trying to nurture a fragile social order in their devastated country.

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In 2004, Rady Ananda joined the growing community of citizen journalists. Initially focused on elections, she investigated the 2004 Ohio election, organizing, training and leading several forays into counties to photograph the 2004 ballots. She officially served at three recounts, including the 2004 recount. She also organized and led the team that audited Franklin County Ohio's 2006 election, proving the number of voter signatures did not match official results. Her work appears in three books.

Her blogs also address religious, gender, sexual and racial equality, as well as environmental issues; and are sprinkled with book and film reviews on various topics. She spent most of her working life as a researcher or investigator for private lawyers, and five years as an editor.

She graduated from The Ohio State University's School of Agriculture in December 2003 with a B.S. in Natural Resources.

All material offered here is the property of Rady Ananda, copyright 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. Permission is granted to repost, with proper attribution including the original link.

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Tell the truth anyway.

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