Deep in the forest, high on a ridge stripped bare of trees and vines, the colonel sat atop his mountain of ore. In track pants and a T-shirt, he needed no uniform to prove he was a soldier. Everyone here knows that Col. Samy Matumo, commander of a renegade brigade of army troops that controls this mineral-rich territory, is the master of every hilltop as far as the eye can see.
Columns of men, bent double under 110-pound sacks of tin ore, emerged from the colonel's mine shaft. It had been carved hundreds of feet into the mountain with Iron Age tools. Porters carry the ore nearly 30 miles on their backs, a two-day trek through a mud-slicked maze to the nearest road and a world hungry for the laptops and other electronics that tin helps create.
On paper, the exploration rights to this mine belong to a consortium of British and South African investors who say they will turn this perilous and exploitative operation into a safe, modern beacon of prosperity for Congo.
But in practice, the consortium's workers cannot even set foot on the mountain. Matumo and his men extort, tax and appropriate at will, draining this vast operation, worth as much as $80 million a year, while Congo again teeters toward war.
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The exploitation of this mountain is emblematic of the failure to right this sprawling African nation after many years of tyranny and war, and of the deadly role the country's immense natural wealth has played in its misery.
Despite a costly effort to unite the nation's many militias into a single national army, plus billions of dollars spent on international peacekeepers and an election in 2006 that brought democracy to Congo for the first time in four decades, the government is unable or unwilling to force these fighters – who wear government army uniforms and collect government paychecks – to leave the mountain.
The ore helps perpetuate a conflict in which as many as 5 million people have died since the mid-1990s, mostly from hunger and disease. In the latest chapter, fighting between government troops and a renegade general named Laurent Nkunda has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians in eastern Congo to flee and pushed the nation to the brink of a new regional war.
The proceeds of mines like this one, along with the illegal tributes collected on roads and border crossings controlled by rebel groups, militias and government soldiers, help bankroll virtually every armed group operating in the region.
This is Africa's curse: Its resources are unearthed by the poor, controlled by the strong, then sold to a world largely oblivious of its bloody origins.
In May, Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Richard Durbin of Illinois introduced a bill to require certifying minerals from Congo. “Without knowing it, tens of millions of people in the United States may be putting money in the pockets of some of the worst human rights violators in the world, simply by using a cell phone or laptop computer,” Durbin, a Democrat, said.
Here in Bisie, daily life offers few clues that such information age technology exists. Isolated and indebted, almost none of the town's workers have any clue what tin is actually used for.
“It is for weapons,” suggested Djuma Assualani, 21. “Kalashnikov, bombs. They make war with it.”
“It is something like gold,” shouted Makami Kimima, 18. “It goes to America. And China. It makes people rich.”