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Story Publication logo October 6, 2006

Millions Have Died for Our Cell Phones


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Conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo have resulted in millions of Congolese lives lost...

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The Mushangi area is nested high in eastern Congo's mountains, far from the capital, Kinshasa, on the border with Rwanda. The hills are barren, stripped of their lush vegetation both by erosion and by a seemingly never-ending conflict. While the rest of Congo prepares for the second round of presidential elections scheduled for Oct. 29, the people of Mushangi worry about one thing: survival.

For the last 10 years, Mushangi has been at the crossroads of a conflict that has paralyzed Congo, one of the world's richest countries in natural resources. The hills of Mushangi are abundant with strategic minerals such as coltan, cassiterite and wolframite that are essential to cellphones and other electronics. But its people, like their countrymen, live in abject poverty and fear.

The conflict started in 1998 and engaged soldiers from half a dozen countries. It has claimed more than 4 million lives already, and peace is far from assured. Even after the withdrawal of foreign armies from Congo and the formation of a power-sharing transitional government, the death toll continued rising because of the emergence and proliferation of armed Congolese militias.

The flow of small arms has emboldened militias to challenge the central government authority and carve spheres of influence in mineral-rich areas, such as Mushangi. The illegal exploitation and trade of natural resources generates large sums of revenue, which in turn allow militias to acquire greater firepower. Thus, the struggle for control of natural resources and mineral wealth is at the core of the conflict.

Rwanda and Uganda, the two neighboring countries that would most benefit from peace in Congo, nevertheless fuel the conflict through their logistical support for the militias. It takes the form of arms transfers, financial assistance, military advice and training and safe harbor for those who flee the Congolese national government.

The Congo conflict is occurring far from our American shores, and it rarely comes up on local evening news, but it touches nearly every American through our mobile phones, laptop computers and video games. Congo holds 80 percent of the world's reserves of coltan, a heat-resistant mineral ore that is all but essential to the operation of such devices.

Coltan is a contraction of columbium-tantalite. Without it, wireless communication as we know it would not exist. Refined coltan yields tantalum, which is used primarily for the production of capacitors, electronic components that control of the flow of current in miniature circuit boards.

Although neither Uganda nor Rwanda has significant deposits of gold, diamonds or coltan, both countries somehow have managed to become important exporters of these minerals. A 2003 U.N. panel of experts on the illegal exploitation of natural resources accused both Rwanda and Uganda of prolonging Congo's civil war so that they could illegally siphon off Congo's mineral wealth -- with the help of Western corporations.

The United States should fully support the recommendations of the U.N. panel and help prosecute those individuals and corporations mentioned in the report. To date, U.S. inaction on the matter has benefited only the perpetrators and, by extension, has helped fuel the conflict. The message to corrupt Congolese government officials: The United States will tolerate business as usual in the extraction of valuable minerals.

In contrast, the United Kingdom has used diplomatic channels to promote the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, which advocates a transparent global bidding system that would benefit the Congolese people as well as interested corporations. Britain's actions have been well received among anti-corruption activists in Africa.

Congo needs these resources to rebuild its economy. The people of Mushangi need peace to rebuild their lives.

Independent journalist Mvemba Phezo Dizolele traveled in Congo this summer on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. His video report on coltan's role in Congo's civil war is featured this week on "Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria," a public-affairs program that airs Sunday morning at 10:30 on KETC/ Channel 9 in St. Louis.








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