There but for the Grace of God: A Lesson in Congolese Chemistry

Wednesday, July 21, 2004 | Nord-Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (map)

The northern road from Goma, into the hills
On Sunday we drove to the coltan mine at Bibatama, the heart of MHI’s operation. As we left the perfectly smooth, newly paved road out of the city and entered the mountains, the surface reverted to a fine powdery dust, which soon seeped in the 4x4's cracks and coated us all—Dr. Sussman and Edouard, two Burmese geologists on hire for some rock analysis, MHI’s top Congolese managers, and Lisa and I.

The vehicle climbed for several hours before we finally reached the mine's office, perched on a broad hilltop. In mid-afternoon and less than 100 miles south of the equator, the air held a crisp chill. We set off immediately for the mine, trudging along a steep path into a ravine while flanked by armed guards. The group wandered around the canyon's bottom for an hour or two, taking soil samples and pointing at veined rock faces, hoping to divine where the richest coltan deposits lay. Further down the ravine, workers were finishing up their day, shoveling a last few loads of mud and rock into a sluice along a streambed, and sifting out traces of the precious black grit. We passed small clusters of mud huts, home to the miners and their families, as dusk fell and we clambered back up the slope.

* * *

Yesterday morning, I woke early to photograph the sunrise on the hills. At dawn, miners and guards stirred from the tents and lean-tos clustered near the main building, and began preparing their breakfast around small campfires. I joined the bosses back inside for breakfast, changed out of my warmest layers, then stepped outside to brush my teeth.

When the shooting started, I was standing beside one of the 4x4 vehicles, enjoying the view of the mountains and scrubbing idly. I paused when I heard a light pop-pop-pop-pop from further along the ridge, where the forest began. I cocked my head and listened, unsure what the sound was. Again, pop-pop-pop-pop. Popcorn in a microwave?

A pause, then the pitter-patter again, and this time a pinging sound of metal-on-metal echoed back from the vehicle beside me. Toothbrush dangling from my mouth, I watched in rapture as the guards leapt from their encampments and ran in a crouch toward the shooting, their own gun barrels suddenly flaring, spitting toward the forest. One guard yelled "par terre!" and motioned frantically for me to duck.

Finally wise to the rapidly escalating situation around me, I dropped to the dirt. The shooting continued around me, and the guards shouted back and forth as they worked to zero in on the attacker in the trees.

I picked my moment, then jumped up and scrambled, crouching as low as I could and zig-zagging toward the office. I banged my fist on the door as the shooting clattered across the ridge before me. In stammering French, I managed to convince the guard behind the door that yes, I was the unarmed, clueless muzungu—not the attacker—and therefore needed to be let inside.

Inside, the lights were out and the windows shuttered. I was hurried into a room where Dr. Sussman, Edouard, Lisa and others lay prostrate on the floor among our cots. I joined them in the tense darkness, panting and listening raptly to the shots and cries outside.

"What's happening?"

"We don't know."

The gunfire diminished, and we hurriedly balled our clothes into our bags and bolted for the back door. As the shots picked up again, we jumped into the vehicles, which whisked us a mile or so down the road before stopping behind a small hillock. Edouard and Dr. Sussman conferred with their managers, and all took turns shouting into the vehicle's two-way radio, trying to get answers from workers still at the main building. The higher-ups suspected that a small band of militants had led the attack, attempting to take over the mine and steal its stock of coltan.

As we drove back toward Goma, however, we ultimately learned that a disgruntled MHI security guard named Adain had carried out the attack along with two miners he had enlisted. Using a cache of stockpiled weapons, they had fired in the direction of the headquarters and vehicles—while I was standing in front of them. Adain's attack, Edouard said, followed previous threats to kill mining camp leaders, allegedly out of dissatisfaction with his salary. Later in the day, we heard that the company's guards had cornered the attackers, capturing Adain’s cohorts but losing the ringleader after a lengthy chase through the hills.

* * *

It would be easy to chalk this episode up to a systemic flaw in MHI's employee relations, except that MHI's other employees all seem enthusiastic to have a stable, paying job, and were as shocked as us by their peers’ attack.

In my eyes, the episode is instead the result of a deadly chemistry at work in eastern Congo, fed by several factors: first, an overabundance of weapons; second, the fact that a decade of conflict has left ordinary people here numb to and accepting of violence, including as a legitimate means of solving problems; and third, a desperation born of the disparity between the dire standard of living and the value of the area's mineral wealth. So to a hotheaded security guard, shooting may seem the best solution to life's inequalities. And in a region that has known as much war as eastern Congo, the weapons of revenge are close at hand.

To summarize the troubles of North Kivu province and eastern Congo as a whole, the Western media often labels the the region inescapably "war-torn," a generalization that does little to help anyone comprehend the situation.

But even locals oversimplify; last week at our hotel, a Congolese woman named Marie Gorette gazed across the lake and offered me this assessment of Goma's troubles: "We have only two problems here: the volcano and governments. Without them, it's a paradise."

It is true that natural disasters have played a part in recent years, and that the influence of Congo's central government is feeble, while neighboring Rwanda and Uganda repeatedly interfere. Unfortunately, however, after decades of fighting and instability, of thuggish warlords and terrorized civilians, today eastern Congo's problems cut much deeper than either the media, Marie Gorette, or the rest of us would like to believe.

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