We are in Goma, east Congo, on the border with Rwanda. Today again affected by fights, this city of poor people is a strategic crossroads of the international trade of precious metals.
Here, our adventure to investigate the military crime association still in business by flouting the US embargo on “ bloody minerals” begins.
Since this year, Washington has forced electronic international giants listed on Wall Street to make sure their mobile phones and computers do not contain metals that could enrich warlords. Goal: stop financing slaughters in Kivu province persisting since 1990s.
In doubt, big companies have stopped the import of raw materials coming from that area. Enough to take local economy to its knees.
This is exactly what violent fringes of Congolese army were waiting for. They hired a crowd of unemployed miners and traders to enlarge the black market led by their boss: the notorious general Bosco Ntaganda.
“Fighters get illegally rich while we are in bankruptcy”, complains Christophe Panubule Abubakar, spokesperson of the Association of exporters of Goma, seriously affected by the American tightening up. Through some contacts we find out one of the main areas of the black market is Numbi village. A picturesque ensemble of clay and dry leaves huts among the mountains over the Kivu lake, south-west of Goma. It takes 5 hours by bus to get there, a long hard journey on a rocky road with plenty of holes. At the base camp of the UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO), we meet Henri Nkeng, intelligence expert. “In the valley, many mines are controlled by ex-fighters of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP)”, says Nkeng.
After the outbreak in 2009, the former CNDP fighters have been integrated in the government forces to kill other armed groups. But their leader Ntaganda has recently started fighting against the government again, by creating the new militia M23, with his faithful comarades. A sudden turncoat action to escape from his international arrest warrant for crimes against humanity, issued by the International Court in the Hague, and to preserve his clan’s mineral fortunes .
Numbi is one of the areas where UN army wants to introduce a system of certification to distinguish “clean minerals” and “dirty minerals” and help the village to reactivate legal export. “ Only bags properly labelled can get through customs”, says Nkeng. Bags coming from mines illegally exploited by men in uniform (both illegal fighters and regular fighters) will be confiscated. But plans have been blown up with new hostilities. During our day exploration of Numbi, muddy quarries in the hills are desert. “ Miners dig at night, controlled by soldiers”, says a villager who has rented his house as a clandestine deposit of cassiterite, a mineral essential in the production of tin used to weld electronic devices, “ at sunrise, workers bring stones mixed with bins in canvas bags” .
We arrive in Kalungu, after a 20km moto-taxi downhill along narrow and steep hair-pins, to shadow “the suspect bins” . In this village, halfway between Numbi and Goma, workers leave theirs 50 kilos of disguised minerals, after an exhausting walking, which is paid less than 20 euros. Today, in Kalungu, there is the bazaar. There is plenty of spices stalls and trucks waiting for fruits and vegetables load. “ I load “those” bins at least four times a month. I earn 10 euros a bag, on average” says a carrier directed to Goma, “ if policemen control me, I just give to them a little money and I go”. Back in Goma, we go to a restaurant out of the way. A reliable person has organized a “ working dinner” with a couple of merchants who used to obtain raw material in Numbi.
“ Material is delivered by fruit and vegetable trucks”, say the two men, by explaining exactly what will happen next. Bags which arrived in the city are protected in secret collection points , where Congolese military vehicles used to take them to the border to pass them to theirs Rwandan colleagues, who have to deliver them to the purchasers across borders. “ Soldiers let us transport up to 20 tons of cassiterite per week in exchange for about 70 euros of gain per ton”, say the two suspicious men while waiting for the bill.
The complicity between ex-CNDP members and Rwandan fighters is nothing new. It got stronger in time because they both belong to Tutsi ethnicity and they also fought together against Congolese government. Ntaganda’s team actually acts as a bridge between Congolese merchants, who became compulsorily dealers, and Rwandan brokers who recycle minerals and sell them to the biggest metal exporters of Central Africa. By following the indications of our smugglers friends, we start searching for the famous transborder passage controlled by soldiers. We take the “ Rue des Acacias”, a travel road crossing the paved road leading to the official border point.
While walking, we start talking with two friendly men outside a villa. “ We deal with mineral business as the most part of our neighbors” says the younger one in a soft voice, while drinking a beer that night in a bar. We can only act like normal purchasers”. “Well, so come over” says the man. The following day, we are in their lair, surrounded by a number of illegal sellers. They are staring at us while one of them offers us examples of cassiterite of Numbi. We quit, pretending we are not interested in the material. But before leaving, one of the most talkative guests says: “Ntaganda takes 20% of the value of mineral loads directed to Goma”.
Before holing up in the forest to reorganize the guerrilla, Ntaganda “ the untouchable” controls the military vehicles coming and going, loading and unloading from his bunker-residence in Rue Des Acacias. We quickly see the building behind a high fence, while we are going down the road again. Suddenly we face a police road block. “ Stop, you cannot pass here. There is Ruanda on the other side” says a policeman, by indicating the improbable mobile stones barrier in the middle of the road. That is the smuggling corridor we have been looking for.
“By controlling transit points, fighters manage to incorporate their criminal traffics in the legal circuit”, says Delly Mawazo, coordinator of the activist organization CREDDHO, “ once secretely passed the border, Congolese minerals are mixed with the Rwandese ones and labelled “Made in Ruanda” reaching international markets. Nobody will ever suspect that they were actually stolen from my country from which has enough armies to seize them”.