Without protection from the strong, you will not last
How appetites for natural resources in Congo murder the bodies and souls of its inhabitants
(Published in Slovene on April 20th 2013, in the Saturday supplement of the newspaper Delo)
I have visited quite a number of dangerous places in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Cambodia, Guatemala, Brazil, Iran, Sudan and other stages of the battle for control over natural resources, where the most brutal characters of the human species jostle and kill. But I have not been so afraid anywhere, constantly so, as I was at the edge of the primeval jungles and savannas under the white-capped extinct volcanoes of east Congo.
The moment they see you, they twitch. Arms, shoulders, whole bodies react as those of wild animals, when they sense pray or become startled. There is no eye contact, no spark of interest in the pupils, no human curiosity as in normal people elsewhere around the world. No wish to know who you are and where you come from and what do you have to say.
There is only quick calculation how you might be exploited. Or fear that you might also be another hired hand of the new global powers or international corporations that crowd the richest country on the planet. A new international thug, come to steal the natural resources of the Congo basin. A new agent! A new spy! Maybe even a reporter that might secretly film the heights of corruption and use it to show the world the greatest, all encompassing decadence and degeneration on Earth.
People at road blocks in tollhouses, tens of kilometers apart, that jump up in various uniforms and with guns in their hands, are, as if by some rule, of lighter skin color, which means that they probably work for the big man in Kinshasa, the capital some fifteen hundred kilometers away. By the same rule, people in worn out rags who close the road/track with a rope and half-hide behind piles of sand ten meters before and after the barrier, which should convince the traveler that they are local officials who have taken road maintenance in their hands, because the big man in the capital is doing nothing, tend to have the coal black color of the local tribes, meaning that they are just simple, ordinary people who collect toll, helping themselves to survive with the fifty cents that the scared driver secretly presses into their palms. The most dangerous ones are those who cower when our »taxi« stops at meager market places between huts of mud and straw, and introduce themselves as officials of the emigration ministry or the ministerie du turistic.
After they carelessly check the passport and visa, they ask for permission to photograph. When you say that you don’t have it, because you just entered the country and would have to get it in the capital, where you would arrive in about a month on these impossible roads and slow rivers, they want to drag you by all means somewhere away from curious onlookers, to a shack with a sign on it saying something about a Republique democratique du Congo, or to the nearest shop, or, if there isn’t one, just around the corner or into a banana grove.
I learned to say, before they become really aggressive, that I don’t need a permit, because I’m not a tourist, but visit catholic missions to film the conditions and find a way to help the indigenous people of Congo.
»Organization?« they ask with a special emphasis.
»Yes! Organization!« I repeat after them with the same special emphasis and display the ID of the humanitarian organization Hope with my photo.
Organization means that I am not alone. That I have big man behind me who will intervene for me, if they arrest and blackmail me for more ransom than the locals pay. Organization pays no bribes to road and village parasites. Big man from Organization pays bribes only to big man in Kinshasa. Big bribes. Without big bribes we could not go to Congo. Without cooperation with big man in state institutions organizations cannot pursue their interests.
But those that raise adrenaline and scare people every day along roads and in villages are actually not as dangerous as they pretend to be, even if they are drunk and drugged and everyone knows they raped this and that woman and girl, and beat up some boys that wouldn’t empty their pockets.
The truly corrupt and really dangerous are those that are not to be seen at all and that I never meet. The biggest bandits on the planet, the biggest criminal associations, the biggest robbers of the world work behind those “creeps” that sprout from the road and spring up in forests ... and usually we don’t even think about them.
Congo - a rich country
»And we are the first among the bandits«, quipped the Italian father Dino in the presence of two Congolese parish priests when we first sat down to dinner in the catholic mission in Mombasa.
»No, no!« I hastened. »You are the only ones that care for people. You work for the people.«
I don’t know how convincing I was, but I did think what I said - the reason being that local, African catholic parish priests kept showing me schools and hospitals founded by Belgian missionaries during the colonial rule, all the way from Airuwa in North of Congo, where I crossed the border with Uganda last month, on a trail through the smallest border crossing, along the track, several hundred kilometers long, over the wavy savanna by way of Bunia and Komanda to the catholic mission deep in the jungle in Mombasa. Even though these schools and hospitals have no more equipment than the poorest ones in Sudan, the catholic fathers still maintain them without any support from the ministries in Kinshasa. And they dare to sharply criticize the new president Kabila (son of the previous Kabila, whose rebellion banished the infamous Mobutu Sese Seko), for only stealing and selling out their natural resources to foreigners.
»The rebels against Kabila are right!« I keep hearing from people in east Congo, everywhere. »Only their ways are not right! It is not right to steal and rape and kill people just like that!«
»We gave the name Kongo to our casino because Kongo is a synonym for wealth,« told me the owner of the casino by the highway between Grosuplje and Ivančna Gorica in Slovenia, some years ago, when I protested against taking in vain the name of the country in which several million people reportedly died because of wars and malnutrition during the last several decades.
It is true: Congo is probably, in terms of natural resources, the richest part of the planet. Especially if you come from the Sahel, you cannot stop marveling at the immeasurable luxury of plant and animal species. It rains all the time and the sun shines all the time. The earth and the sky beget bigger and stronger forms of life than anywhere else on the globe. All living things look as if they were genetically modified. The trees are bigger, fruits and vegetables are bigger and more varied, the Congo basin and its outskirts have the largest number of various species of animals, some of which cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. At the same time, the Congo basin is also the largest birthing place for humans. What capacities, what human potentials. From almost red Pygmies, the smallest people on Earth, to the blackest and the most stately Nilots, and the stout, wide-shouldered Bantu, who colonized the virgin natural greenhouses along the second mightiest river on the planet, using metal that they learned to smelt from iron ore, along with all shades of human skin color from India, China, Arabia and even South America; I have even met Roma already during my first travel through Congo on a motorbike in 1979 ...
The primeval forests of Congo in the heart of Africa are not the heart of darkness, as Joseph Conrad described the scene of his novel of that name, to draw attention to the atrocities committed by colonial Belgians. Nor are they the apocalypse now, as in the movie, inspired by Conrad’s novel, a hundred years later, in which Francis Ford Coppola tried to explain the conduct of American forces in Vietnam. The enormous rain forests, spreading over thousands of kilometers in the valley around the Congo river, are not the »green hell«, James Fraser’s description of the similar valley of the Amazon river, also on the equator, where we city folks, used only to streets, tramways and libraries, succumb in large numbers to exotic deceases and die of sheer panic before the omnipresence of almighty universal creative forces or at best discard the thin layer of sophistication and from deep within the unconscious go mad en masse and turn back into beasts and cannibals.
The ancient forests in the Congo valley and its outskirts around the equator are mightier, more virginal and more beautiful than the remains of the rain forests on the Hawai island of Kauai or the Gold Coast of Australia or in Costa Rica, visited in large numbers by tourists from all over the world, hungry for primordial sensations.
It’s hard to go any further away from the big cities and transportation routes. We are as far away as possible from the »world gone mad «, » that only eats and excretes «. Except through transistor radios, whose batteries are only rarely full, the news of the day or the current global »perception management« do not reach us. We enjoy the most natural food, without any preservatives, grown without any artificial fertilizers, because there is simply no money for them. In the middle of the continent that sleeps like the Sleeping Beauty under the curse, we drink the cleanest water and breathe the cleanest air on the planet. If anywhere, then here in Congo I believe that humanity has a future.
But why aren’t the roads any better than I remember them from my first visit thirty years ago?
In 1993, I drove in two months, with an 80-cubic centimeters Tomos motor bike, the same road from Khartoum in Sudan to Juba in South Sudan, crossed the border into Congo near the town of Yei and then through east Congo on the same road through Bunia, Beni, Gomo and on through Ruanda and Burundi all the way to Dar es Salam in Tanzania. Now I can compare what I remember from back then, and am one of the few living witnesses that the whole infrastructure is worse and has actually disintegrated. Not only roads, cities too, and colonial buildings from the time of Belgian rule, and vertical roofs of homes of Belgian colonizers on the hills to the east, where Dutch cows graze. Even cemeteries with Flemish names ... Everything that was reminiscent of urban civilization has been taken back by the jungle during these thirty years that I spent travelling elsewhere around the world. I feel the most sorry for the schools; the long rows of carefully painted classrooms on carefully mowed meadows among fantastic cathedrals of trees, with overjoyous pupils in clean white and blue uniforms, waving and shouting greetings through windows without panes, as soon as they saw me on the bike, tied up with bags, bananas, supplies of gasoline and a little monkey on the top.
I can understand that east Congo has no museums, art galleries and libraries, and no books or newspapers anywhere, much less Internet cafes. But I cannot accept the fact that in this heaven on Earth millions of natives suffer from malnutrition and die in wars, like in Sudan. In the Sahel, where the natural conditions are least favorable for humans, least luxurious and in places literally hellish.
From the natural rubber rush to the coltan rush
What is happening to the people of Congo is not happening only because they are pampered and have never done anything more than wait for the banana to fall from the palm. Nor because their natural environment has never changed much in history, so they are not used to adapting to new conditions, for example a continental war for control over natural resources.
Since the arrival of Asians and Europeans five hundred years ago, Congo has also seen mainly plunder, predation and murder. After the slave hunters, who dragged off the strongest and most capable potentials, to develop foreign economies, came the elephant hunters. At the end of the nineteenth century, they were getting rich on elephant tusks, severing them for example for piano keys, so that gentle men and ladies could indulge in noble pleasures. The plunder of natural resources and murder of natives reached its peak in the private colony of Belgian king Leopold I., »blessed« by all contemporary European powers as the greatest philanthropic project in human history. During the natural rubber rush, which served the needs of rubber producers at the beginning of the automobile industry, Belgian mercenaries exterminated half the population of Congo, in the greatest hypocrisy of human history - ten million people.
Ten million! As many as, according to estimates, died now, a hundred years later, also over several decades, this time because of - coltan.
The word coltan is an abbreviation for columbite-tantalite, a mineral that contains niobium and tantalum. When coltan is refined, it turns into powder, resistant to extremely high temperatures, with a unique capacity to store electrical power. This is why it is used for condensers not only by the military industry, but also by the entire civilian digital technology, from the entertainment industry, which needs it for play consoles, to the most practical consumer electronics, which we all use massively in our mobile phones, digital cameras, computers, ... Coltan enables our devices to grow smaller and smaller, providing us with increasing comfort.
Ninety percent of the coltan deposits so far discovered by transnational corporations, whose logos light our nights from the biggest modern Babylonian towers of contemporary Sodoms and Gomorras, have been discovered here, in east Congo.
The average 14-percent annual growth in demands for coltan on the planet means that coltan is now what gold used to be. Although the price jumped last year from 60 to 600 dollars per kilogram and this year fell again to 120 dollars, coltan miners on the average supposedly earn more than 200 dollars a month, which is 10 times more than the average worker’s pay in Congo.
As I could see on the first coltan fields south-east of Bunia in the direction of Lake Albert, where I was driven on a motor bike on an awful dirt track by one of the local catholic fathers, the ore is dug up in an open mine, with the most primitive techniques - picks and shovels. Water helps the natives burrowing for coltan to rinse the mud like gold-diggers, so the heavier metal can sink to the bottom of dug-up pits, where they scrape it up and harvest it.
»Villagers in large numbers leave fields, plantations and herds to crowd into swamps and jungles, where they only dig and gamble, drink and indulge in debauchery«, lamented the father.
Although financial support from the Vatican, Europe and America is drying up because of increasingly empty collection boxes, protection by the missionary fathers from all the big men in Congo is comparatively clean. So I travel around Congo with support and protection from the missionary system. With missionaries, although I can’t make the sign of the cross or eat a communion wafer, I feel better than with any government minders, security people, soldiers or bureaucrats that constantly try to rip me off at every encounter. Better than with foreign non-governmental organizations that are more afraid of me than Christians of the devil, maybe really because I might accidentally expose their side business. And even better than with UN agencies; from the one that cares for children to the one that should care for refugees, and the one we all know that should care for the nourishment of all mankind ... To the one that boasts the moniker Monusco and denotes 16.000 soldiers under blue helmets, the largest military mission of the UN on Earth, and is regularly accused in recent years even by the mainstream media of inefficiency, arms trading and even encouraging conflicts, so they have an excuse to remain in Congo, and rapes.
In their last report, Monusco defends itself against accusations that they are just ordinary war profiteers, and tries to make the case that, besides the big man in Kinshasa, the biggest profits from coltan go mainly to various groups rebelling against the central government that more and more systematically occupy the coltan fields, and to their masters across the border in Ruanda.
The Rwandan army is supposed to earn more than 250 million dollars from selling coltan over the last 18 months, although Ruanda has no coltan at all. Uganda is also suspected of smuggling and reselling coltan to Belgium.
But in contrast with blood diamonds, it is much harder to trace the blood in coltan powder.
I expected that the father and me would stay with the muddied workers and have supper with them of manioc and something roasted from the forest, have a drink of strong banana brandy, sleep under mosquito nets and early next day, when vapors rise from the wonderful forest, hold mass. But the atmosphere of the late afternoon suddenly became heavy, greasy like the red alluvial clay heaped up everywhere around us. One of the supervisors that were constantly peering around suspiciously, within reach of their Russian Kalashnikovs, was hurriedly saying something on a satellite phone, and then sternly called the father.
Cobra Matata, the commander of the rebel group that controls the dig on this side, sent a warning that he doesn’t like any tourists and that we should immediately clear out and better take care of souls than worldly matters. The father, whom I’ve never seen paying bribes, obeyed.
»Look how muddied it is,« whispered the soldier on the bridge over the Ituri river. »They dragged in heavy machinery. The Chinese!«
»The Chinese paid a concession to big man in Kinshasa, now they do with our river and forest as they please. We get absolutely nothing from the fantastic profits«, nodded the father.
»No schools, no philharmonic, no opera, as in Manous in the jungles of Amazon a hundred years ago, during the natural rubber rush?«
»Not even a road so that business could go on without hindrances«, complained the father on returning to the mission.
The coltan rash does not attack only the elites who believe that diamonds are forever, but all of us ordinary people baited by manufacturers with more and more glistening displays on digital toys. All of us that give in to the monkey reflex make up the most dangerous big man, nowhere to be seen and never to be met on the crumbling red dirt roads of Congo.
Maybe mankind will be touched by the message that coltan also contains, besides the blood of ordinary citizens of Congo, the blood of Pygmies, the smallest people, similar to the Bushmen that we all liked so much in The Gods Must Be Crazy movies (the infamous dictator and cleptocrat Mobutu described them as the first citizens of Congo already half a century ago). Coltan also contains the blood of the gorillas studied by Dian Fossey on the sides of the Mountains of the Moon, who remain in our memory from the movie Gorillas in the Mist. And the blood of the okapi, the most unusual animals, similar to zebras, horses and donkeys, that only live in the Ituri rainforest.
According to witness testimonies, commander Cobra Matata killed 14 okapi in the Ituri forest at the end of last year.
Just as cans of tuna have the label Dolphin safe, so should every mobile phone have the label Okapi safe, Gorilla safe, Pygmy safe - if not Human safe!
Tomo Križnar, Congo, March 29.th 2013