National Geographic : 2013 Oct
60 national geographic • OCTOBER 2013 shovels. Inside one tunnel, named Maternity, the mother tunnel, the walls were moist and slimy and narrower at each step. In the thick darkness there was no sense of up or down, just the drip, drip, drip of water and the faint sound of men singing from deep in the bowels of the Earth. The miners lug the sacks of cassiterite out of the tunnels on their backs and drag them down to a little hut at the bottom of the mountain, where clerks weigh them, record the numbers in a big book, and affix a plastic bar-code tag indicating that this cassiterite is conflict free. We were confused. We knew Bavi was rebel controlled. We’d seen all those rebel child soldiers there with our own eyes. So why did a govern- ment intelligence officer have us arrested? Wasn’t the government supposed to be fighting the rebels? When we were released, security agents tailed us and slept in a car outside our hotel. “You stumbled into a game,” explained a Unit- ed Nations official with years of experience in Congo. “ They are all sharing the illegal spoils. It’s a scramble. It’s grab as much as you can.” Then onward by motorbike or pickup to Bukavu, the main town, to be loaded onto tractor trailers bound for Rwanda and then to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, a big port on the Indian Ocean. The cassiterite ends up in Malaysia, where it is smelt- ed at more than 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit and then sold to electronics companies. The Nyabibwe mine used to be run by Congo- lese soldiers. But in 2011 the government ordered the military out. Since then, reports indicate that military-led smuggling may still be going on at the mine. But when we were there, in January of this year, we didn’t see any soldiers, militiamen, or child laborers. The record books looked pretty clean. Nyabibwe seemed like progress. THE PROBLEM is that there are still too few clean mines. Only about 10 percent of mines in the east—55 in total—have been deemed conflict free. Although most tin, tantalum, and tung- sten mines have been demilitarized, gold mines remain largely in army or rebel hands. Govern- ment officials collude secretly with rebel chiefs like Cobra Matata to make money, as we learned when we tried to get to the Bavi gold mine. After our arrest, soldiers interrogated us in the small, dark house in Bunia for hours: “Who took you to Bavi? What was the purpose of your trip? Where did you go?” they shouted. We were confused. Wasn’t the government supposed to be fighting the rebels?