Minerals, militias, and rape: How do we make peace a reality in Congo?

By — March 1, 2012

As nightfall approached on July 30, 2010, hundreds of armed men streamed into the village of Luvungi in eastern Congo from the nearby forests surrounding the area. At first they told the villagers they were just there for food and shelter and that their presence should cause no alarm. However, what unfolded over the next four days marked one of the worst attacks against a civilian community in Congo in the last two years.

From July 30 to August 2 the armed men from different militias wreaked havoc on the surrounding villages. When they finally left and the dust settled, the human toll of the attack slowly became clear. At first, just 24 women and girls reported being raped, but that number began to climb. In the weeks to come, the total number of victims of sexualized violence inched closer to 300, their ages spanning from 10 months to 70 years. Not a single perpetrator has been held fully accountable in court for the crimes carried out in those four days.

Luvungi is located in the Walikale region of eastern Congo, home to several gold mines and one of the country’s largest tin mines, called Bisie. At certain points in the past few years Bisie has accounted for 70 percent of Congo’s tin production. Unsurprisingly, control of Bisie has changed hands numerous times over the years as warring rebel groups battle among themselves to exploit its wealth and control surrounding populations. In the battle for Congo’s strategic minerals reserves, it is often the communities that bear the brunt of the conflict—sometimes attacked as a demonstration of whoever is in power, sometimes punished for perceived alliances, other times intimidated into providing food or other resources. This was certainly the case in Luvungi.

A cargo plane in Walikale, home to several gold mines and one of the country’s largest tin mines, called Bisie. (Enough Project/Laura Heaton)

Over the past decade and a half, hundreds of thousands of women have been raped and nearly 6 million people have lost their lives in Congo due to continued conflict and instability. Millions remain displaced. What began over longstanding grievances and ethnic tensions is now violence that is also driven by the fight to control a multimillion-dollar illicit trade in conflict minerals—gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum that are used in all electronics products. Rape is used by those who want to maintain power as a strategic weapon to destroy the social fabric of society. A population cowed by sexualized violence has little choice but to allow armed groups in Congo free reign over land—including around mines and trading routes—labor, and other resources. A tool of punishment, control, and intimidation, rape is facilitated by a culture of impunity where some of the worst offenders walk freely.

However, despite the bleakness and suffering for the communities of eastern Congo, hope remains. International and local efforts focused on reform of Congo’s mining sector, as well as a push for greater justice and accountability, has resulted in unprecedented shifts in the modus operandi.

The passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, which requires greater responsibility of conflict minerals provisions by end-user companies (including major electronics companies), sparked the development of processes that could result in a minerals sector that benefits rather than destroys communities. Companies like Motorola Solutions are investing millions of dollars into Congo and are beginning to trace their supply chains and determine where the minerals in their products are coming from. Traders and the Congolese government are starting to feel pressure from companies to source responsibly, and in turn favoring minerals from legitimate sources, requiring increased transparency and accountability for extractors, transporters, and exporters.

A year and a half after the 2010 attack, Bisie is no longer controlled by those perpetrators, and although still contentious, mining police have been monitoring the area in cooperation with the national army and the UN Peacekeeping Mission, or MONUSCO, in an attempt to promote legitimate control over the mine.

Progress is tenuous, and there is a great need for an internationally accepted conflict mineral certification process to incentivize legitimacy and develop communities on the ground, thus diminishing the ability of war criminals and human rights abusers to profit and sustain the conflict. Further, reform in the minerals sector will not lead to peace without efforts towards greater accountability, good governance, and the dismantling of armed groups. The fact that perpetrators of the 2010 attack have evaded punishment is illustrative of a policy of impunity for mass attacks and illegal mining. That, too, however, could be starting to change.

Fast-forward from summer 2010 to another major attack in eastern Congo to make international headlines: New Year’s Day, 2011, in a town called Fizi in the South Kivu Province.

A prominent general in the Congolese Army was shot and killed by a local shop owner following a bar fight. This particular general was also a member of one of the most destructive former rebel groups—called the CNDP (Congrès national pour la défense du people), which in 2009 was incorporated into the Congolese national army through a deal with Joseph Kabila’s government. The villagers had long been upset by this military unit’s presence in their community and tensions had been running high of late. Following the shooting, members of the unit went on a rampage to punish the community for the death of its general. More than 60 women were reportedly raped in the attack.

Unlike the 2010 Luvungi attack, the incident in Fizi led to a landmark trial and an uncommon chance at justice. A mobile court system was set up in the community to try the perpetrators, and the commanding officer of the attack, Lt. Col. Mutware Kabibi, became one of the highest-ranking officers of the Congolese military to be tried and convicted. He is currently serving out his 20-year term in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. Eight other members of the military were also found guilty and received prison sentences.

That the Congolese government and international community successfully prosecuted these perpetrators demonstrates, for the very first time, that there are consequences for mass rape and crimes against humanity, even for high-ranking officers. This sends strong signals to armed groups in Congo, particularly the national army. If these convictions are replicated and expanded, they will go a long way in helping shift an environment of impunity to one of consequence for actions.

The conflict in eastern Congo has been a blight on the Congolese government and the international community for far too long. The issues at play are complex and interwoven; there are no quick fixes or easy solutions. But efforts under way to mitigate the effects of the illicit conflict minerals trade, as well as attempts to reform the justice sector, are steps forward to ensure that attacks on women, girls, and communities—like those in Luvungi and Fizi—become a thing of the past. Progress on these fronts will fall to the wayside without continued pressure and action.

(Join the fight for peace in Congo at www.raisehopeforcongo.org/action and read Women Under Siege’s analysis of how rape has been used as a tool of war here.)

Chloe Christman is Enough’s Raise Hope for Congo Campaign assistant manager. Aaron Hall is Enough’s associate director of research.

EDITOR'S NOTE: We have changed the spelling of the village of Ruvungi to "Luvungi" throughout. "Ruvungi" is used in multiple news outlets as well, however.