Greed in a time of cholera

To survive, the people of eastern Congo have a choice: either to risk deadly diseases mining minerals for rebel soldiers, or flee into the jungle. Kate Holt and Sarah Hughes report on how an entire population has been enslaved - and abandoned by the West
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The Independent Online

The planes swoop down, sometimes as many as 15 a day. Most are battered and rusty. They land on the makeshift airstrip, a dusty road 23km from Walikale in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The planes swoop down, sometimes as many as 15 a day. Most are battered and rusty. They land on the makeshift airstrip, a dusty road 23km from Walikale in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

By the road is a group of young soldiers wearing a motley collection of camouflage uniforms, multicoloured hats and white wellington boots. They lean on their Kalashnikovs, smoking and watching another group of men trudging to and from the planes under the hot sun, carrying heavy white sacks filled with a valuable cargo.

Under the soldiers' watchful eyes, the men load the planes. No one speaks, partly from fear, partly because this is hard, desperate work. Each bag weighs 50kg. For these ordinary-looking sacks contain cassiterite - the expensive mineral ore from which tin is extracted.

The story of Walikale is a story of greed, violence and death. It is the tale of a country rich in minerals and resources, and of the gunmen who seized those resources to fund their conflict; of an international community that appears unable or unwilling to commit troops to an area where little seems likely to improve; of aid agencies forced out, taking their medical knowledge and supplies with them; of the people left abandoned, working in inhuman conditions for minimal pay; and of the wealthy countries thousands of miles away who trade in tin and never question what the consequences might be.

The story of Walikale is the story of the Congo: ravaged by war, plundered by prospectors, abandoned by those who said they would protect it, and ruled by the gun.

Bashima Bantu is 29 years old. Once fit and healthy, he lies drawn and sick in a cholera treatment centre in Bilo Bilo, near the town of Bisie in the Walikale district. He speaks softly; sometimes he groans.

Bashima contracted cholera working in the cassiterite trade. "I arrived here this morning from Bisie," he says. "I walked for two days with my load of cassiterite to reach the town and sell it. I was with my brother who brought me here when I passed out. I began to feel sick this morning. I had a lot of pain in my stomach and then fell unconscious. I had carried 50kg of cassiterite on my back from Bisie."

He has worked as a cassiterite carrier for three months. It is heavy, dangerous work, but it is well paid in a country where the average daily wage is less than 20 US cents. "We get $15 [about £8.50] for each journey, although we have to pay tax to the military along the way," Bashima says. "We carry it from Bisie to the airstrip and then walk back for two days and do it again."

The lucrative cassiterite trade is now in the hands of forces of the former rebel movement RCD-Goma, who control an area almost the size of neighbouring Rwanda. They have driven Walikale's desperate population into the nearby forests and jungles, and forced those who remain, such as Bashima, to work as little more than pack mules, mining the cassiterite and then ensuring that the cargo gets out.

It is not just the work that is dangerous. The military's grip on the area has led to a shortage of food and medical supplies, despite continued assistance from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The roads are basic, and many people no longer have access to clean water. As RCD-Goma continues to oversee the mining of cassiterite, the people of Walikale district are dying of cholera.

"The problem is that there is no clean water in Bisie, where the mines are," Bashima says. "People are drinking the water and it is not boiled or clean because it is too difficult for us to boil water there. We live in a shelter made of things we found in the forest. Many people have malaria and cholera. A lot of my friends have died."

As the competition for the mineral resource has grown stronger and RCD-Goma tightened its grip, so the situation has grown worse. War first came here in 1998, and up to 30,000 people have been displaced in recent months. Two years ago, a tentative peace process was established and United Nations military observers arrived in Walikale to monitor the integration of rebel groups into the new Congolese army. On 4 June, as the situation began to spiral out of control in the eastern DRC and RCD-Goma seized control of Walikale again from the Mai Mai rebel soldiers, these UN observers and all the international aid agencies were forced to flee.

Last week, the UN secretary general Kofi Annan requested that 24,000 soldiers be sent to the Congo at a cost of $1bn (£560m) - the largest peacekeeping force in the world. Britain has called for an extra 5,000 to 6,000 troops to be sent immediately. It is an admirable idea, but it may have come too late for the people of Walikale. For Walikale district these days has the feel of a Wild West border area - lawless, run on a black-market economy and controlled by whoever has the most guns.

The main town is Walikale itself. It used to be a bustling market town, and it was home to 15,000 people. Now it is deserted. The once thriving market is a row of empty shacks. Abandoned mud huts are set back from the streets, doors swinging or kicked in, their thatched roofs neglected and collapsing. The streets are eerily empty: walking down them, it is hard not to imagine the ghostly echoes of ruined lives.

The contrast between Walikale's silent streets and the stream of men loading the planes is stark. Each plane brings in goods from Goma and carries off up to two tonnes of cassiterite, removing a daily total worth about $50,000. The mineral is cleaned or sold in Goma and exported at a higher price. The demand for cassiterite is rising in the developed world: a global shortage of tin saw prices reach $9,600 a tonne in May this year, up from $6,500 in January.

A report by the campaign group Global Witness in July said that companies from countries as diverse as Belgium, Germany, Malaysia, Canada, Holland and Russia have shares in the export of cassiterite.

As to where it goes, and what the planes are bringing in, reports remain conflicting. Global Witness said: "A highly efficient network has been set up by RCD [-Goma] and the Rwandan army to transport the resources by planes and trucks from eastern Congo to Kigali [the capital of Rwanda]." Rwanda is also a cassiterite producer, and shipments, the report said, could "easily be lost among the country's own supplies". The report added that the planes might be used to "move troops, equipments, supplies and arms into Congo".

Rwanda, which has twice invaded Congo to hunt those implicated in the 1994 genocide, continues to insist it has no troops in the DRC (contrary to a recent UN report commissioned by the Security Council) and no interest in plundering its riches. It also denies links with RCD-Goma, whose leader, Azarias Ruberwa, is part of the Banyamulenge tribe, who were recently targeted in a massacre in neighbouring Burundi.

Nearly 50km from Walikale, a 10-hour journey along a muddy track, lies Bisie, where the cassiterite is mined. Up to 14,000 people live in the nearby jungle, and most are involved in the cassiterite trade.

The traditional economy has broken down. A bartering system exists, and every- thing is paid for with cassiterite. Congolese Primus beer - normal price $3 - costs 2kg of cassiterite. Prostitutes also cost 2kg of cassiterite. There are three main mines in the jungle, with 50 people mining in each, night and day, on rotation. Those who work here give half of what they mine to the mine owner and a further 10 per cent to the military, and also pay a tax to the soldiers to transport their loads out. Life is dangerous and hard for those who join the cassiterite trade, yet for those who choose not to work in the mines, the situation is worse.

Pascal is 35, his son Batuba is six. They have lived in the Congolese jungle with Pascal's three other children for a month. "When I heard that fighting was coming, I decided to move my family into the forest," Pascal says. "We eat badly, mostly manioc [cassava] and bananas once a day, but if we find more we might eat twice. We have a grass shelter built under the trees, but there are no proper walls and three other families live in it with us. It is in the middle of the forest, 2km from the road, but I think that is safer. I want to improve my family's situation, but I am scared of the war."

Pascal has no money, and Batuba is suffering from malnutrition. School is starting, but Pascal's children may not go. "I have no money to move back to a town. The only way to escape this poverty is to work in Bisie, mining cassiterite, but I'm scared to do that because it is so dangerous."

Pascal's situation is common in Walikale. Damian Lilly, the deputy head of the MSF-Holland mission in Walikale, says: "The economy of Walikale is weird - with planes coming in every day to make a few people rich, while others die of cholera, a very treatable disease, because they lack access to clean water."

MSF arrived a year ago to provide support for Walikale hospital and to set up a feeding centre. Its workers were forced to evacuate on 4 June. Since then, only short-term missions have been possible. "When the cholera epidemic began, we provided immediate support to the health centres to stop the spread, but our work has been made very difficult by the precarious security situation," Lilly says.

The problems in Walikale have their roots in history. For generations, since the time of King Leopold II of Belgium and the days of colonial empire-building, the Congo's rich resources have been mined, exploited, fought over and traded away. To those in power, the DRC's people have become ever less relevant, until they find themselves here: foraging in the jungle, with no place they can call their home.

Marie clutches her four-month-old baby Faela in her arms. Faela is her fifth child, and the only one still alive. Marie and her husband, Moisie, did not want to cross the jungle to the feeding centre, but when Faela fell sick with malnutrition they realised that they had to. Marie believes she cannot give birth to another child. She says she would do anything to ensure that Faela survives.

"We had to come. We were scared because of the fighting, but we had to find help. We have family from Walikale - my mother, my grandmother and my four brothers - but they are now staying in the forest because they are too scared to live in the town. We don't know where to find them in the forest or when they will come back."

Marie and Moisie used to live in Mukatu, 20km from Walikale. On 4 June, Mai Mai forces came to the village and took control. "We hid our pots and pans in the forest," Marie says. "The soldiers stole everything - our radio, our blanket. We don't know when we can go home, but we can't stay here and I don't know when I will find my family."

It isn't just the displaced who are suffering. At the Walikale hospital, Dr Kofimoja, the chief medical officer in the region, says even those working in the medical profession are being forced to leave their jobs.

"Because of the insecurity, nurses are leaving," he says. "So far six have left. Some leave because they do not feel safe, but some leave to mine cassiterite. Health workers are not paid by the government and rely on the goodwill of patients, so it is perhaps not surprising. But it is causing problems."

Christine Bahati knows all about the cassiterite trade. In the MSF feeding centre in Walikale, she holds her child Elia Ley and talks about her young brother-in-law and how he came to die on that desolate road to the airstrip. "My husband's little brother was 16 years old," she says. "He was on holiday from school and needed to make money. His school fees were $2 a month and he had to buy books as well. One journey would make him $15, although he also had to pay to get on to the path to carry the cassiterite, and also give the military $2.50, but the money was still good."

Young, fit and eager to work, Christine's brother-in-law went to the mines. "On his first day, he mined cassiterite," she says. "But he caught cholera in Bisie. He was on the path with 20kg on his back when he collapsed and died. It was his first journey."

The family mourned this lively, hard-working son; they cried for him, remembered him, buried him. But Christine's husband still works in the cassiterite trade. Like so many others in this bleak, impoverished and abandoned part of eastern Congo, he cannot afford to refuse.