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Your Cellphone is Killing People: Regulate Conflict Minerals in the DRC

In 1994, a Hutu paramilitary organization called the Interahamwe perpetrated a mass genocide in Rwanda against another ethnic group, the Tutsi. In response, the Rwandese Patriotic Front eventually drove the Interahamwe, their supporters, and the Hutu who feared retaliation into nearby countries: over two million people crossed the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Interahamwe remain in the Democratic Republic of Congo today. They now call themselves the Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda, or the FDLR. They compete with other groups to control the Coltan mines in the DRC, but they set the bloody standard for terrorism in the neighborhood.

The violence connected with these mines is absolutely monstrous. The militias use terrorism to intimidate the people, and the most brutal are the ones who gain control of the ore that comes from the mines. But the weapons of terror are not car bombs or explosive devices. They use public torture and rape to intimidate the Congolese people. Nicholas Kristof recently described the horrible conditions that result in his columns The World Capital of Killing, and From "Oprah" to Building Sisterhood in Congo.

More than two hundred thousand Congolese women and children have been raped and mutilated, often in front of their families or in front of the whole village — and this has been going on for years. Among the stories that the UN reported in 2005, paramilitary men grilled villagers’ bodies on a spit and boiled two girls alive in front of their mother. More often they gang rape a woman, penetrating her with weapons and mutilating her. Sometimes they use machetes or guns, and they are reported to set her on fire, as well. Those who survive are often left entirely incontinent because they suffer from traumatic gynecologic fistula — destruction of the tissue between the vagina, bladder, and bowels. The UN reports tens of thousands of these rapes per year. There is an increasing number of men who suffer this fate, as well.

Jeanette and her husband were farmers when the Interahamwe stormed into their village and burned it to the ground. They raped and tortured her, cut off both of her hands, and left her for dead. They raped another woman in the village who was pregnant, penetrated her with a rifle, and shot her.

The Interahamwe killed Generose’s husband, hacked off her leg with a machete, and cooked it in front of her family on their kitchen fire. When her 12-year-old son refused to eat it, they killed him.

The violence continues, and stories like these play out daily in eastern DRC. The causes for the conflict in the DRC are complicated, but one thing is simple: the suffering continues because of the mines. Militias directly control the region’s coltan and tin production. At the end of 2007, the International Rescue Committee estimated that nearly 5.5 million people had died, and that number continues to rise.

I want to draw your attention to coltan, which is the ore that contains tantalum. From an engineering perspective, tantalum is a sweetheart metal. It has ideal mechanical, thermal, and chemical properties. It can be heated to very high temperatures, it is stable in corrosive environments, and it machines well. It also maintains these properties after heating; tungsten, for example, becomes extremely brittle and fragile once it’s heated, which is why incandescent light bulb filaments break so easily. This is not so with tantalum, which can be re-machined after heating to high temperatures. Alloys of tantalum behave nicely, as well.

The video refers to widespread use of tantalum capacitors, but because of its favorable properties tantalum is commonly used in industry. Camera lenses are made with tantalum oxide. Tantalum metal is ideal for making surgical implants and instruments — it even bonds with hard tissue better than other metals. Its ductility and suppleness make it the metal of choice for fine wires and long-lasting filaments, and its alloys are used in jet engines, missiles, and process equipment for engineering across the board. Our technology makes us dependent on this precious metal.

We can take steps to regulate tantalum and other conflict metals, much like the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone. Roughly 25% of the tantalum ore currently produced comes from the DRC and surrounding areas:

What can you do without leaving your chair?

— There are currently two bills that seek to regulate conflict metals: S.891, The Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009, and HR 4128, The Conflict Minerals and Trade Act. Make sure your Senators and Representatives understand that this issue is dire, and that they support the bills and their future incarnations, if necessary.

— Learn more. Start by looking at a slideshow about a Congolese tin mine from NYT, or Youtube Taking On Conflict Minerals. The EcoJustice team frequently posts about Africa in the weekly series on Monday nights (10:00p Eastern). See the tag EcoJustice Africa.

— Donate to help HEAL Africa build a new hospital, contribute to their microcredit program, or other community projects.

— Write to the companies that make your electronic devices, and encourage them to boycott blood minerals, sign the Conflict Minerals Pledge and offer certification that their products are blood mineral-free.

— Work with advocacy groups like Enough, and Raise Hope for Congo.

** Jeanette and Generose’s stories are told by Women for Women International, another organization that is doing fine work to support war survivors in the DRC. Read about Jeanette in The Other Side of War by Zainab Salbi; Nicholas Kristof tells Generose’s story in the links provided.

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