Congo's Riches, Looted by Renegade Troops
Men mined for tin ore in a pit in eastern Congo that is part of a lucrative operation controlled by renegade soldiers. The fighters extort and tax at will.
BISIE, Congo — 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, no epaulets to reveal his rank. 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.
The SpoilsBuried Treasure, Broken Nation
SCRAMBLING FOR HIDDEN WEALTH A hunter discovered tin ore in eastern Congo in 2002, and miners arrived almost overnight. In the battle for control of the mine in Bisie, a militia allied with the government won out.
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 powered by human sweat, muscle and bone. 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, each man a link in a long global chain.
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. Like a mafia, Colonel Matumo and his men extort, tax and appropriate at will, draining this vast operation, worth as much as $80 million a year.
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 these fighters control is central to the chaos that plagues Congo, helping to perpetuate a conflict in which as many as five 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 here 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 in the region.
No roads lead to Bisie. This hidden town of 10,000 lies about 30 miles down a winding, muddy footpath through dense, equatorial forest. Built entirely for the mine, it is a cloistered world of expropriation and violence that mirrors the broad crisis in Congo.
This is Africa's resource curse: The wealth is unearthed by the poor, controlled by the strong, then sold to a world largely oblivious of its origins.
Under Colonel Matumo, Bisie is a Darwinian place where those with weapons and money leech off a desperate horde.
The chokehold begins far from the mine. At the trailhead, a burly soldier demands 50 cents from each person entering the narrow trail to the mine. A clamoring crowd hands wrinkled bills to the soldier, who opens the wooden gate a crack to let in those with cash.
At the other end of the trail, at the base of the mountain, another crowd forms at the gate into Bisie. Porters exhausted from the two-day trek sprawl on felled trees, waiting for soldiers to inspect their loads and extract another tribute. The price is usually 10 percent of entering merchandise and cash.
The men at the checkpoints describe these payments as taxes. But the people of Bisie do not get much in return. The village is a filthy warren of mud huts. Hundreds of haphazard latrines flood narrow, trash-filled alleyways. Disease courses through the town, carried by water from a river that is used for everything from washing clothes to cleaning ore. Jawbones of slaughtered cows and goats stud the riverbed. When it rains, the river overflows, spreading cholera and dysentery.
In some ways, Bisie is a thriving commercial town. It has makeshift theaters showing bootleg kung fu movies on televisions powered by sputtering generators. Its bars are stocked with Johnnie Walker whiskey and Primus beer, each bottle carried through the jungle. There is no telephone service, but a ham radio system passes messages between the mine and the outside world. It has hotels that double as brothels. There is even a clapboard church.