stok_280African journalist Seada Nourhussen and photographer Jan-Joseph Stok visited the Democratic Republic of Congo to investigate the role the trade in minerals used in cell phones has in the ongoing war in eastern Congo. The trip took Nourhussen and Stok from Amsterdam, throught Belgium, Kenya and Rwanda to the poor, artisanal mines in eastern Congo and the modern, industrial mines in Lubumbashi. They met children who work in the mines under difficult conditions, women who were violently raped by rebels and soldiers and abandoned by their community, big and small merchants, mine owners, prostitutes, activists and aid workers. All key players in the economic war behind our gadgets.

There is a horrifying story hidden behind the international trade in mobile phones, as well as laptops, iPods and other MP3 players, game consoles, digital cameras and more modern (telecom)equipment. These devices carry minerals with strange names such as coltan, cassiterite and wolframite and better known ones like cobalt and gold ores. After treatment coltan becomes a heat resistant powder that can hold a high electric charge. Cassiterite is processed into tin, primarily used as a solder on circuit boards. Wolframite is processed into tungsten, that allows mobile phones to vibrate. Cobalt is an important component of rechargeable batteries in mobile phones, laptops and digital cameras.

The materials come from different parts of the world. But activists such as the British organisation Global Witness and the American Enough Project are specifically concerned about the exploitation of coltan and other precious resources from the Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimated 64 percent of the world’s coltan reserves come from the DRC, several reports say, especially from the east, divided into the provinces of North and South Kivu. These places are full of mines with coltan, cassiterite, wolframite and gold.

At the same time there is an incessant and violent conflict going on in the Kivus. The warring parties control, according to reports from Global Witness and the Belgian International Peace Information Service (IPIS), various sites where coltan, wolframite, cassiterite and gold are mined. Activists from the Enough Project, based in Washington, say there is a direct link between the ongoing violence in eastern Congo and the trade in commodities from the region used in modern electronic devices. Because war costs money – lots of money – troops must be paid and fed, ammunition, weapons and equipment have to be purchased. The armed groups either occupy the mines and force civilians to work there, or they occupy and block the roads and the airports on which the minerals are transported so they can illegally tax the drivers, pilots and traders.

According to Enough Project, that aims to end genocide and crimes against humanity, both Congo’s soldiers from the integrated army, who should be protecting the population, and the various rebel groups each year earn about 180 million US dollars with the trade in raw the materials that end up in our gadgets. It could be a lot more. And this figure is nothing compared to the billions earned on mobile phones, laptops, iPods and playstations, but such an amount is nonetheless a fortune in eastern Congo. And more than enough for the armed groups to continue their terror for a long time.

Seada Nourhussen

Jan-Joseph Stok