Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The DRC's Mineral Curse - You can help end it!

Three jars of peanut butter, 98 slices of white bread, 89 bananas, 54 boiled eggs, more goat than I will eat for the rest of my life, countless cups of Nescafe and my gut tells me it is time to leave the Congo. Exhausted from continually having multiple sets of eyes staring at me no matter what I do, it is time for a break. Everything I own and every crevice of my body is covered in a fine silt of red dust. I am sure I will continue to discover remnants of the dust along with my Congolese life lessons for years to come.

It has been 50 days since I few into the unknown of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Not sure if I would like it here or if I would even be able to walk down the street alone, my experience here has been surprisingly calm and quite magical. The Congo will really go down in my book as one of the most amazing travel experiences ever. If nothing else, it has been very real. The most raw elements of life and humanity in every way. Some of the most kind people I have ever met and five minutes later quite possibly one of the most evil people I hope I will ever meet. The most light I have ever witnessed and moments of the deepest despair I have ever felt.

As you have read, the contradictions of the Congo has been difficult to sum up. Not wanting to sensationalize the situation here, there is so much going on it is hard to write all the details. All of the things I have discussed soldiers, police, looting, and rape they are going on around us, but the majority of my time here has been peaceful and fairly relaxed. The situation here is not chaotic. It is systematic, calculated, and predictable.

As my farewell to the people of S.Kivu, Alana and I decide to do the 30 km walk from the Crosiers to Butembo. It is the drive we take everyday, but during that time we pass hundreds of people on the road walking to the market with their goods and to the fields to cultivate their crops. The walk took several hours, but it allowed us to take in even more of the scenery and interact with people. One woman we pass every morning came out to greet us with her newborn twins, a grandmother going to cut firewood stroked my white arm, and as we passed the school we picked up a small mob of 200 children who walked with us for several kilometers. When we talk to people along the way –especially the elderly- and they learn that we are from America their eyes light up with the realization the world has not forgotten about the DR Congo.

One description I read about the Congo compared the entire country to a sick water buffalo being gnawed at by hyenas (all the countries surrounding the Congo and foreign players). The Congo is 2/3 the size of Western Europe and the estimated population is only 50 million. Many experts (including our UN friends agree) it may only be manageable if/when it is broken into four countries.

Unlike my prior perception, the entire Congo is not a chaotic mess, but a systematic arrangement of alliances and political power plays. At many junctions it is impossible to tell who is “right” and who is “wrong”. Most of the key players are shape shifters who change alliances when it works to their benefit. Without a government that truly wants peace, an international organization with a mandate that has some teeth, and enough pressure from the outside world, the situation in the DRC is an unsolvable Rubix’s cube.

Now the good news.

The DRC is a resource rich country with thriving land with a RESILIANT population that wants change. As demonstrated numerous times by the COPERMA staff and the really amazing group of prostitutes we worked with, common people of the DRC are organizing themselves and working for what they believe is right. Willing to risk personally safety for change, they want to live in peace and have justice in their country.

They are working tirelessly towards this end.

So what can you do personally to help change the situation in the DRC and why should you care?

To put it simply anyone in the world who has a laptop, cell phone, or digital camera has a direct connection and an ethical responsibility to help the people of Congo resolve the problems in their country. Why? At is core, the fighting in the Congo is for control of it’s mineral rich land that contains coltan, diamonds, tin, copper, gold, and almost every other precious mineral in the world. Over a million dollars worth of minerals leave the DRC each day on the black market and the common population living in mud huts sees none of the benefits. These minerals are transported to other countries and refined into usable products that are then shipped around the world for use by electronics manufactures. There is currently no standard to ensure that companies are not buying “blood minerals”.

While we may feel powerless to help, we must remember we vote consciously and unconsciously with our dollars. While I am typing on my Mac laptop and listening to tunes on my ipod, I need to remember at what cost they are produced. It is not that we should stop using these products, but it is time to join consumer movements (like the “Enough” project) that are demanding ethical mineral sourcing from companies such as Mac and Nintendo.

What I have walked away with personally is that I need to learn even more about foreign aid and specifically why it does not work in Africa. While it is comforting to think the UN is helping and the World Food Program is doing food drops, there is no one working for long-term sustainable solutions to end the conflict in Congo. By paying attention to our governments foreign policy and having an active voice in it we can create the atmosphere of consumer pressure that is needed to create lasting peace and stability in Congo. Really it starts with you.

Where can you start right now?

1. Repost this to your FB page
2. Join the Enough movement and get on their email list -www.raisehopeforcongo.org/content/take-action
3. Have a discussion tonight with at least one friend about conflict minerals

The “Alpha Job Hotel”

One afternoon a few weeks ago, bored with our daily

routine, we got off of work early and decided to go to a hotel we heard had a pool table. As we walked across the green manicured lawn our timing it seems was uncanny. About five feet from the outdoor pool table was a rectangular table surrounded the military, police, and local business men. The unusually long rectangular table created a scene akin to the last supper. Except this supper had the commander at the center of the table flanked on both sides by police in blue uniforms, the military in green, businessmen in impeccable suits (possibly the mayor?), AK-47’s, and beer.

Having already descended across the lawn, by the time we surmised the scene there was no turning around. It would be even more obvious that we thought something was up if we tu

rned around and left.

As we awkwardly began our game of pool, some UN workers happened to show up for an after work drink. They hesitantly sat at the table on the opposite end of the last supper. Pretending to focus on my pool game, I did everything I could to nonchalantly steel glances at what was unfolding before our eyes.

The scene was awkward and unspoken. We were all working each day to address the same issues in Congo it is just that we all have very different roles in everything that is going on here.

As the meeting finished, the military com

mander and a few of his men strutted over to the pool table. With guns slung around their shoulders and fingers ready to reach for the trigger, they

came over and gave a little macho display of force to make sure we had not overheard anything at the meeting.

Assured that we did not speak French, the police stood by the gate to the hotel compound. As they stood guard several "civilian" vehicles with tinted windo

ws, black as night, roared out of the hotel. That was about 5:15pm.

The next day when we arrived to COPERMA we discovered our co-worker "Joseph" was trapped in his house with his family. At 5:30pm the night before police and military had descended on his

neighborhood and set fire to the local city hall of sorts. They remind the locals if they share a dissenting political view against the majority party (the president) they would be punished. After that the DR Congo’s own military began raping, looting, and intimidating the neighborhood.

Our only thought was we need to let the UN know. Surely if they know what is going on and that women are being raped they will stop it. Wrong. Dead wrong. People fro

m the neighborhood did contact them, but even now a few weeks later, no one we talked to saw any UN enter the neighborhood. They have granted a safe house to prominent people who may be in danger, but as far as going to the neighborhood to prevent raping and looting, we have heard no accounts so far.

The top priority for our coworker once he got out of his house was to go to show up at work! We told him to go home and take care of his family that work could wait! “Joseph” moved his family into a friend’s house, but two day later he moved his family back into their house. That night the military entered his house uninvited. Very controlled, they demanded to know if there were weapons and to see photo albums. He said they were looking for photos of anyone in the military.

About five days later things had finally calmed do

wn enough

for us to enter “Joseph’s” neighborhood. Not really sure if we were supposed to be there conducted a very sketchy interview in a local schoolyard with a lawyer who lived in there. As Amy translated questions I carefully positioned my camera to only show his mouth so he cannot be identified. Everyone else looked around uncomfortably and jumped at the sound of any noise. Pretty sure the police and military would not be cool with a foreign interview, the people of the community were willing to take a calculated risk to get the word out to the world.

A few weeks ago while the world was paying attention to the Ivory Coast, the president Kabila held a “vote” to change the voting process from a primary and an election to just one election. The majority (Kabila’s party) won and parliament and the judiciary committee broke out into a massive fistfight on national television. As Amy recently described it best in one of her bogs, “The scene

would be comparable to Colin Powell punching Hilary Clinton in the face while Nancy Pelosi is kicking Rahm Emanuel between the legs.”

Since then, the capital agreed if the minority party collected 100,000 signatures they would consider changing the elections back from one final round of voting bac

k to two. The neighborhood in Butembo had collected 60,000 signatures and the majority party was worried it was getting too close to 100,000.

The frustration of the neighborhood was expressed by the lawyer. It is not that they want to overthrow the government, the just want justice. And by that they mean they want a chance for peace and the freedom to question the government if they do not agree. As is in their countries name, they would like democracy, not to pick a fight with the military.

A bit rattled, but glad we made it out of the in

terview unscathed we left with more questions than we had come with. Where is the UN in all of this and why have they not responded? Are they on the side of the government, are they apathetic, or are they responding and we just don’t know.

Looking for answers a few days later we headed

to the UN’s weekly meetings for non-profits.

In a stale cement floor meeting room with a rattling air-conditioned, I listened for two hours pretty much not understanding anything that was going on. Taking video and audio, Amy would periodically mouth to me “Are you getting this?” so I knew what he was saying must be good.

As the debriefer acknowledged and discussed the numerous security problems that were arising he agreed they were connected to the elections. He described the people of the neighborhood as ignorant and “uneducated”, but based on our co-worker and the lawyer we knew that could not be entirely true. Again, it seemed the UN was glossing over the important details wanting to give the impression that the situation had been handled, but really probably nothing had been done other than a written report about the incident. Cited as one of the most failed UN missions in history, even UN workers I meet are disillusioned with the agency’s mission in the Congo.

While no one has been willing to even go anomalously on record the consensus seems to be that the UN mandate and will does not have enough teeth to effectively do anything here.