Sixty years ago, the world gasped in horror at the discovery of a program of systematic murder intent on annihilating particular groups of people, most notably Jews and Gypsies. While the term genocide has recently been used by the Bush Administration to depict the on-going human rights violations in the Darfur region of Sudan, very little attention, media and other, has been given to the holocaust in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), widely considered to be the deadliest conflict since the Second World War. Analyzing the historical and political economic roots of the conflict in the DRC, as well as the way that the war has particularly affected women in the Congo, provides important insights and understanding into a severely underreported conflict.

Undoubtedly, the most brutal part of the Congo’s history was under colonialism when Belgium’s King Leopold II, in the late 19th and early 20th century, personally owned the ‘Congo Free State.’ Forcing the population into slavery, first as porters and then as ivory and wild rubber collectors when Europe and North America’s appetite for rubber swelled as cars and bicycles became popular, the First Congolese Holocaust claimed the lives of roughly ten million people, according to official Belgian statistics, effectively cutting the region’s population by half. So horrific were the atrocities that not only did Joseph Conrad, after visiting the Congo, feel compelled to document what he witnessed into a literary work, Heart of Darkness, but it is also where we find the first usage of the term ‘crimes against humanity,’ coined by George Washington Williams, an American journalist and the first to expose to the world the terror of King Leopold’s Congo. It wasn’t until an employee of a company which owned the subsidiary that held a monopoly over all trade to and from the Congo, discovered that guns and ammunition were being ‘traded’ for rubber and mineral wealth, did a movement opposing the horror begin. Edmund Dene Morel, along with Roger Casement who supplied information directly from the Congo, catalyzed the 20th century’s first international human rights campaign.

After years of international attention and embarrassment, thanks to Morel and Casement’s tireless energy and the thousands who supported and joined their efforts, King Leopold sold the property to Belgium, reducing the atrocities, though far from eliminating them. When the wave of decolonization hit Africa after World War 2, the Congo’s first and only democratically elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, was elected, only to be assassinated soon after by CIA operatives in the early 1960s. For over 30 years, the Congo remained an unofficial colony of the United States under the Mobutu dictatorship, providing the West with a cheap source of essential minerals.

The Congo is often considered to be Africa’s richest country, but, as some have noted, it’s “wealth has also been its curse.” Considering the Congo is home to millions of tons of diamonds, zinc, manganese, uranium, niobium, as well as “holding the world’s biggest copper, cobalt, and cadmium deposits,” it should not be surprising that the country has been of great interest to numerous Western governments. Particularly important for high-technology is tantalum, more commonly known as coltan. This metallic ore, of which the DRC possesses 80% of the world’s known reserves, [5] is essential for a wide number of consumer devices, including every cell-phone, computer, television, DVD player, Playstation, pager, fiber optic, capacitor, as well as nuclear, aerospace and defense industries. “Large-scale consumers” of coltan include Sony, Microsoft, IBM, Nokia, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Intel.

Indeed, the U.S. has spent millions of dollars over decades in securing access to these precious minerals. Prior to the country’s civil war, Mobutu’s dictatorship, that is, from 1965 to 1997 when the country was renamed Zaire, “received more than $1.5 billion in U.S. economic and military aid. In return, U.S. multinationals increased their share of the ownership of Zaire’s fabulous mineral wealth.”

Western mining companies, mostly American though some Canadian as well, have a significant amount of interest in the region: As Asad Ismi notes, “nearly 80% of the strategic minerals the U.S. requires are found in Africa…These minerals are needed to make jet engines, cars, missiles, electronic components, iron and steel.” As senior research associates at the Arms Trade Resource Center of the World Policy Institute Dena Montague and Frida Berrigan note, the aforementioned minerals found in the DRC “are vital to maintaining U.S. military dominance, economic prosperity, and consumer satisfaction.” Since the U.S.

“does not have a domestic supply of many essential minerals, the U.S. government identifies sources of strategic minerals…then encourages U.S. corporations to invest in and facilitate production of the needed materials. Historically, the DRC…has been an important source of strategic minerals for the United States…to protect these economic interests, the U.S. government continues to provide millions of dollars in arms and military training to known human-rights abusers and undemocratic regimes. Thus, the DRC’s mineral wealth is both an impetus for war and an impediment to stopping it.”

The U.S. government has ensured that the wealth of the DRC is used to enrich high-technology and mineral companies, rather then be used for development or debt repayment. Soon after Paul Kagame, who received military training at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in overthrowing the Hutu regime in Rwanda in 1994, the U.S. “sent $75 million in military aid to the new government. Additionally, U.S. Green Berets began to provide ‘humanitarian training’ to Rwandan troops,” as well as U.S. Special Forces “training the Rwandan army…in counterinsurgency, combat and psychological operations,” notes Asad Ismi. “This included instructions about fighting in Zaire.” Rwandan soldiers were also sent to North Carolina for training at Fort Bragg in the summer of 1996. Several months later, Kagame’s RPF joined forces “with members of Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda People’s Defense Forces and Laurent Kabila, a Congolese rebel leader, in an invasion of Zaire. In 1997, they succeeded in toppling Mobutu,” after having “killed tens of thousands of civilians.”

Corporate access to the Congo’s wealth was limited under the Mobutu dictatorship, since “locally based Congolese strongmen had controlled the distribution of the resources on the government’s behalf, effectively limiting the potential for massive mining deals.” Once the coalition of Rwandan, Ugandan and Congolese rebel troops, known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), had occupied the mineral-rich Eastern region, Western corporations were able to strike very lucrative mining deals. As Adam Hochschild notes, “companies…benefit far more from a cash-in-suitcases economy than they would from a highly taxed and regulated one that would tightly control natural resources.”

American Mineral Fields, for example, obtained a $1 billion deal with Kabila in 1997, allowing the company “to perform feasibility studies on reactivating the Kipushi mine, a high-grade zinc and copper deposit. The company also landed exclusive exportation rights to an estimated 1.4 million tons of copper and 270,000 tons of cobalt.” The negotiations reportedly began immediately after Kabila and the AFDL captured the city of Goma in the Eastern Congo, in February 1997.

In 1998, however, Kagame and Museveni had a “falling out” with Kabila, after he expelled Rwandan and Ugandan forces from the DRC, resulting in the two launching “a new invasion.” As has been noted, “the desire for mineral wealth helped to escalate conflict between the DRC on the one hand and Rwanda and Uganda on the other” soon after Kabila’s rise to power. The two countries have created ‘surrogate rebel armies’ which have allowed Rwanda and Uganda to profit immensely from the increased ease of mineral plundering since the second invasion: “Rwanda’s coltan production doubled…the volume of Rwanda’s diamond exports rose from about 166 carats in 1990 to some 30,500 in 2000 – a 184-fold increase…since 1996, Ugandan gold exports have increased tenfold. The final destination for many of these minerals is the United States.” In 1999 and 2000 alone, the Rwandan army allegedly plundered natural resources in the eastern Congo worth approximately a total of $250 million.

In response, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe sent their armies to support the Congolese government while Burundi joined Rwanda and Uganda, beginning what has been called the Congolese civil war, or, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright accurately described it while speaking before the U.N. Security Council in January 2000, “Africa’s First World War”. While the countries that have participated in the conflict may have initially done so for altruistic reasons (such as defending the Congo from its invaders) or for national security concerns (in case violence spreads into their own borders), these neighboring countries, “[s]eeing a huge, resource-rich country with no functioning government,” soon “joined in dividing the spoils.” As Lindsey Benedict notes, the “motives that originally drew foreign countries in the Congo…have been displaced by exploitation of the Congo’s vast resources.”

To keep the war going, with the instability resulting in cheap access to the country’s wealth, “the U.S. has given arms and/or military training to all seven armies,” according to Ismi, with Uganda receiving $1.5 million in 1999, Rwanda obtaining $325,000 under the U.S.’s International Military Education Training in 2000, and on the opposite camp “Zimbabwe getting $1.4 million in U.S. military training in 2000 and Namibia $500,000.” Unsurprisingly, according to Human Rights Watch’s 1999 World Report, Rwanda and Uganda are the U.S.’s “staunchest allies in the region.” Millions of dollars of U.S. tax-payer money has been spent to ensure that companies, American and other, have unrestricted access to the mineral plunder, while the Congolese people are further impoverished and slaughtered. “Western governments,” notes Ismi, “rewarded Rwanda for invading the Congo by doubling aid to the country from $26.1 million in 1997 to $51.5 million in 1999.”

Yaa Lenghi M. Ngemi, director of the African Research and Educational Institute, argues that countries with the leverage in the UN to stop the conflict “are benefiting from the resources of the Congo, [and] therefore don’t want peace to come right away. They want it to drag it along.” Perhaps this is why the UN’s small force in the Congo, MONUC, has not been expanded. The result of U.S. military aid to the armies participating in the conflict, compounded by inadequate UN effort in the Congo, is a region where the number of innocent victims painfully rises by the thousands every month. In addition to a robust and meaningful UN presence in eastern Congo, “Western governments,” Cynthia Scharf writes in the Wall Street Journal in 2003, must ‘slash’ “foreign aid that helps finance the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, two key protagonists with vested interests in prolonging the conflict.”

Members of the United Nations have not ignored the role of corporations in the conflict: In 2001, the Group of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and other Forms of Wealth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a UN panel created to research the conflict in the region, submitted a report to the United Nations, corroborating the argument that Western companies are instrumental in the misnamed Congolese ‘civil war.’ “The role of the private sector in the exploitation of natural resources and the continuation of the war has been vital,” the report noted. “A number of companies have been involved and have fuelled the war directly, trading arms for natural resources. Others have facilitated access to financial resources, which are used to purchase weapons.” The panel added that “[c]ompanies trading minerals…[are] considered to be ‘the engine of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’…The only loser in this huge business venture is the Congolese people.” The chairman of the panel, Mahmoud Kassem, said at a news conference that “the role of these companies is really important. Corporations have a direct and indirect role. Without them, this kind of commerce would not be possible.”

The UN Panel reported that the Cabot Corporation, whose former CEO and Chairman, Samuel Bodman, now U.S. Secretary of Energy (and former Deputy Director of the Department of the Treasury, before becoming Deputy Secretary of the Department of Commerce in George W. Bush’s first term, providing a fitting example of the close relationship between industry heads and public servants in the U.S.), had a contract to obtain coltan from Eagle Wings Resources International during the war. Cabot is the world’s largest refiner of coltan. The Panel also stated that Eagle Wings achieved special access to coltan sites and use of captive labor, largely through “its contacts with the Rwandan military.”

Several Canadian companies are benefiting from the war in the DRC, including First Quantum Minerals and Barrick Gold. First Quantum Minerals, whose special advisor on Africa in the mid 1990s was former Canadian PM and Foreign Minister Joe Clark, owns a copper deposit in the DRC. Barrick, whose directors include former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and John Trevor Eyton, a Canadian Senator appointed by Mulroney (as well as until recently having former U.S. President George H.W. Bush as a paid advisor), owns mining properties in parts of the Eastern Congo under Rwandan and Ugandan occupation. According to Le Monde Diplomatique, Barrick, among numerous others, have been “funding military operations in exchange for lucrative contracts in the east of the DRC” “[s]ince the outbreak of the first war in the Congo.” Not only have Canadian companies profited from a conflict situation of genocidal proportions, but former Canadian PMs have also assisted them in their ventures.

After years of fighting, the Second Congolese Holocaust has left an estimated 4-5 million people dead, mostly from starvation and disease. The central cause of the conflict, as noted above, leads back to the West. With the United States government training and arming various militant groups in the region, companies in the U.S. have profited considerably from cheap extraction and exportation of valuable minerals from the Congo, mostly in the Eastern regions. Without the interest of Western corporations, it is unlikely that millions of Congolese would be dead and millions more living in abject poverty. “The real party fueling the conflict is foreign capital investment by corporations,” write Montague and Berrigan. “This war of genocidal proportions cannot end until U.S. and other Western corporations and governments are forced to change their priorities.”

Though the DRC is considered to be Africa’s richest country, its people live in complete misery. How a country can be both materially wealthy and have its people living at the margins of survival is a paradox that can only be explained by a critical understating of international relations. Rather than having the wealth of the region being used for economic development or even paying down the illegitimate shackles of debt (amassed by decades of Mobutu’s extravagant spending) to international financial institutions, the Congo’s mineral resources have been consistently plundered and siphoned out of Africa to benefit the West. Were the resources used for productive purposes, or at least exported fairly with the revenue put back into the economy for infrastructure development and the building of hospitals and schools, the DRC could have become an advanced and prosperous country with a high standard of living for its people.

In addition to the transfer of wealth, the savageries of the war have left the county in tatters, perhaps unable to recover, and possibly dashing the dreams of one day developing a decent quality of life for the Congolese and their children. Regrettably, the Congolese people have not been allowed to determine the political, economic and social condition of their country; following a pattern that is all too familiar with nearly all Africans from the dawn of colonization to the modern era, the Congo’s wealth has been used to enrich Western corporations in the mining and high technology sectors. “Today’s predators,” as Adam Hochschild notes, “are American armies and European and American corporations hungering for mineral wealth.”

Congolese women are often the most significant victims of the conflict, tough few actively participate in the war itself. By and large, the violence inflicted against women has been sexual, and has not been limited to one side of the conflict: According to a June 2002 Human Rights Watch report, “sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war by most of the forces involved in this conflict.” The report also states that combatants in the DRC used sexual violence against women as a tool of psychological conflict,

“as part of their effort to win and maintain control over civilians and the territory they inhabited. They attacked women and girls as representatives of their communities, intending through their injury and humiliation to terrorize the women themselves and many others.”

Indeed, as is the case with most mass rapes in conflict situation, the actions had nothing to do with the sexual gratification of soldiers, and everything to do with inflicting emotional terror in the victims and others, as to instill shame and a feeling of helplessness. According to a more recent (March 2005) report by Human Rights Watch, a World Health Organization investigation found that a total of approximately forty thousand women and girls have been the victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence in the Eastern occupied region of the Congo.

Numerous Congolese women have also been abducted to serve as forced labourers. These women have been forced to perform “gender-specific work” or “domestic labor,” including “finding and transporting firewood, cooking, and doing laundry for the men who held them captive and sexually assaulted them” When the armed groups would travel, they would force the captive women to carry their supplies and stolen goods. Even during times of conflict, women continued to be treated as if they were endowed with abilities to carry out ‘gender-specific work’, work that is considered to be the exclusive domain of women, such as cooking and cleaning. The war in the Congo changed these assumptions from tacit unjust arrangements to forced realities under the conditions of absolute servitude and slavery.

While men are not spared from the brutality in the conflict in the DRC, considering they are the ones on the frontlines fighting other armed groups, women are perhaps the greatest victims of the war. Large-scale rapes and abductions to serve as domestic labourers are crimes restricted, in this case, to women and girls. When the international community analyses the human effects of wars, they all too often focus either on the combatants, which often involve almost exclusively men, or on the victims as a whole; seldom do they take into consideration the specific victimization of women.

The conflict in the Congo is the greatest tragedy of the modern era. Millions of Congolese have died in the past decade of fighting, mostly from starvation and disease, while many more continue to perish, though the ‘civil war’ officially ended in 2002. Considered to be the richest country in Africa because of its incredible mineral wealth, the Congo has not been able to develop to a level in which its citizenry can live a decent life. Instead, the wealth of the country has been exported to serve the interests of Western high technology corporations. A critical analysis of the conflict points the finger squarely at the United States Government for arming and training Rwandan and Ugandan troops and supporting their invasion of the country in 1996 and again in 1998, in order to provide greater access to the valuable minerals for U.S. mining corporations to send back to the U.S. Contributing to this political economic perspective, analyzing how women are particularly affected by the war emphasizes the importance of the female victims of the conflict, who all too often bear the brunt of large-scale atrocities. Although the media has not focused much attention on the continuing horrors in the DRC, let alone discuss the root causes of the conflict, nearly 40,000 people die each month in the region. The more we ignore the victims of this brutal tragedy, the less likely an international humanitarian intervention will occur anytime in the future. Until this happens, a generation of Congolese will be lost to a war which knows no limits.


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Gregory Queyranne holds a B.A. in political science from the University of British Columbia. While completing his studies he worked at Gordon Neighbourhood House, an inner-city non-profit organization. Most recently, Gregory spent some time in the French Senate as an intern, volunteered at an HIV orphanage in Lusaka, Zambia, and was a research facilitator for the Campus Institute for Global Issues.