Sometimes solutions create their own problems. In 2004, legislation was passed in the United States barring the use of lead in electronics. In stride, manufacturers switched to tin to solder their parts together. A third of the world’s tin resources—specifically the ore cassiterite—come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has an unregulated, corrupt, and brutal mining industry. In particular, child labor is rampant, controlled by men with guns, which is generally not what you want to encourage when you buy that new laptop.
I went to Bisie, one of the biggest mines in northeast Congo, on assignment for Marketplace Radio. With me was a photographer named Tom Rippe. We set out for the edge of a vast jungle to a town called Walikale. Though there is a small UN outpost staffed by soldiers on loan from the Indian army here, it is the furthest place that UN peacekeepers active in the region feel safe enough to venture in their patrols. They live in a concrete and barbed-wire compound at the end of town and import their supplies by helicopter two days a week. It was on one of those helicopters that we hitched our ride. Our quick layover was the last I saw of the UN and the only role they play in our story.
On the other side of Walikale (a quiet village, chickens in the dirt road, populated by small farmers and disappointed prospectors) is a private hotel for top commanders of the 85th brigade. The 85th controls most of this jungle and profits from all of the mining that takes place here. The evening I visited, I found the deputy commander sitting on the front porch at a folding table eating from a bowl of fish stew. His linen pants and linen shirt were stitched with a Chinese dragon. He frowned at my press pass and took long luxurious scratches on his balls. While I waited for approval to enter the jungle, I watched Celine Dion sing on a white television strung with Christmas lights in the courtyard.
Then a young man in jeans and a tight black t-shirt stepped out of the darkness and into the circle of porch light. He stopped 10 feet from us, slapped two fingers—a peace sign—against his chest and saluted. Then he swiveled left in a military about face, crouched, stuck out his ass, and ground his hips raunchily to the music. The deputy commander grinned. “Come Rasta!” he shouted. “Drink your beer.”
Rasta had traveled from Bisie to Walikale, the opposite of the trip I was about to make. He had started in Bisie at 11 PM and arrived in Walikale at 9 this morning. The hike was led by Colonel Samy Matumo, head of the 85th brigade and one of the most notorious military men in Congo. A former rebel leader, he’d used his new government uniform to establish a system of taxation over all the cassiterite that was carried out of the jungle. He was brazen, and it inspired devotion in men like Rasta.
“What does Colonel Samy look like?” I asked Rasta. The only photo I’d seen was a headshot in a newspaper, a wide-faced man glowering under a green beret.
“He is a big man,” said Rasta, unhelpfully. He said the same thing when I asked why Colonel Samy chose to travel at night. Was the agile Don afraid of ambush, or was he pursuing a tactical advantage?
It was early the following morning that I realized a third reason for Samy’s nocturnal passage: the sun.
By 9 AM the next day Tom and I were two hours into our two-day hike from Walikale to Bisie. Sweat was pooled in the pockets of my shirt and moisture soaked the filters of the local cigarettes I’d brought as bribes. Along the well-worn jungle footpath men marched past us wearing soccer shorts and Wellington boots. On their heads they carried burlap sacks of cassiterite rock heavier than themselves. These were the porters, most of them teenagers. They fueled the difficult journey with a cocktail called Lion’s Tears: one part palm wine, one part fermented banana, one part gin, and one part beer.
“Bonsoir!” one shouted at us as he passed.
“Bonsoir,” I screamed back, though it was still morning. “Ca va?”
“Ca va bien,” he said as forcefully, as if he were saying, “Fuckin’ A.”
I heard the diminishing slurp-slap-slurp of his Wellingtons in the mud behind us. Later, I was told there was a rumor among the porters that two white guys had showed up to buy the mountain. Others we met shouted greetings in various languages, depending on who they thought we were.
“How ah youuuuuu?!” “I’m fine, thanks, how are you?”
“Nee-how but I’m not Chinese.”
“Je ne suis pas Chinois asshole.”
Every three miles or so there were small kiosks serving rice and beans or porridge. These little outposts seemed like something out of the Gold Rush, the cooks squinting at the workers as they pass. The cooks’ system was explained to us: one starts his pot at 6 AM, another at 7, another at 8, so that workers can always get a hot meal. The further along the trail the higher the price to eat.
On the second day we arrived at a town called Manware. Named for the black (“noir”) color of the cassiterite mineral, it is a town of merchants and prostitutes. Colonel Samy’s soldiers were everywhere. On a road off the main path I came upon a dozen boys in boots and ski caps guarding one big box of Don Juan tequila.
Our first stop in Manware was a visit to the tribal elders, who, at least according to tradition, are the rightful owners of the Bisie mine. Down a dirt road, sitting in front of a small blue house was Bambula, a tribal elder in his mid-40s. He wore an aloha shirt and had gin on his breath. He asked me for money. If the Walikale jungle is the Gold Rush, then the tribal elders are the impotent and deposed Native American chiefs.
When I said I had no money for him but was interested in hearing his side of the cassiterite story, Bambula roused himself from his porch. A few other tribal elders followed us across the dirt road to a brightly colored folding chair made of dyed banana fiber. It was ornamental and tiny, like a child’s chair. “This,” Bambula said slowly, “is the tribal chair. He who sits in it becomes honored.” He spoke mournfully, and the others nodded. We all stood staring at the chair like it was a deer one of us had just run down with our car. No one said anything, but they all turned and looked at me. So I went to take a seat in the tribal chair. But the whole scene was making me uneasy and I sat down too quickly, misjudging how small the chair actually was. I managed to avoid toppling over, but the chair was so low my knees were at a level with my shoulders, and I struggled lamely to sit up straight, like a man squirming in an ab-cruncher. The other men arranged regular chairs around me and took their seats. I felt them watching me. “So,” I said, when no one else spoke. “I’m here to listen.”
“Eseke was once the owner of the mountain,” Bambula began.
Eseke was the owner of the mountain but Eseke owned many mountains and they were comprised mostly of jungle and were only used by monkey hunters. One day a hunter was on top of the mountain following a trail of monkeys when the sun was setting. It was too late to return, so the hunter decided to set camp. As he collected a few rocks to put around the fire he found a stone that was heavier than usual. The next day the hunter put the curiously heavy stone in his bag along with a few captured monkeys and went back to his village to show the chief.
When word spread about the heavy rock, men started coming from everywhere. It was something called cassiterite, they said, and Western companies would pay a lot of money for it. In those days the rock could be found on the mountain without any digging. Suddenly Eseke’s family was selling rights to independent contractors who paid them well in cows and cash.
Then Colonel Samy came. Bambula refers to Colonel Samy and his men as the “Inyaga,” for they are from a different tribe. A tribe with guns and government influence. Bambula paused and asked me for a cigarette.
“When you see what is happening here, you cannot help but take our complaint everywhere,” he said. “Please help us solve this.”
I wondered what he wanted me to solve. If Colonel Samy didn’t control the mine, then someone else would. These mines are worth over $150 million a year at least. No tribal chief in an aloha shirt will be given that sort of power. I said nothing—his pride seemed injured enough. Bambula and the other men stood. I heaved myself into a standing position.
The air smelled of honeysuckle as we walked back through the dark to our campsite in Manware. Fireflies blinked on and off around the bushes along the road. Children called out to us from behind the bushes. “Morning!” they cried. “Morning, morning!” It seemed that the fireflies themselves were speaking.
The next day we arrived at the Bisie mines. The jungle canopy had covered us for three days and now the sun shone down with a vengeance. The mountain had been plucked of all its trees. Mineshafts dotted the denuded expanse like holes poked in an anthill by kids with sticks. The tunnels were too close together, sometimes right on top of each other. From underground came the muffled sound of explosions. Mining here is a haphazard affair: workers bang cavities in the rock with spikes, stuff dynamite inside, detonate the load, and look for mineral in the rubble. There are no engineers. No jackhammers. No hard hats. It’s all done with mallets, metal spikes, and TNT.
The mood was frenetic. Shirtless men raced in and out of the tunnels carrying loads of rocks while young children sifted powder in buckets, picking out the shiny pieces. The footbridges between pits were muddy and flood-prone. Clinging to the edge of the tunnels were lean-tos made of wood poles and plastic sheeting, inside of which men with scales sat among stacks of hundred-dollar bills. These were the buyers. Larger lean-tos held the workers. At a short distance, in another assortment of coverings, were traders busy selling kebabs and luxuries—radios, bolts of cloth, pointy-toed leather shoes. There was even a little movie theater, comprised of a TV plugged into a generator under a tent, and a photo studio where miners had their choice of different backdrops. I stopped for a moment to watch a photographer snap a picture of a young guy in front of a backdrop showing the ocean and palm trees. The whole enterprise—totaling more than 15,000 boys and men—seemed so fragile and slipshod, something that could be blown off the mountain with a good gust of wind.
We chose one of the mines at random and entered it quickly to escape from the noise. After 20 feet the darkness was absolute. We switched on the headlamps we’d bought from one of the traders. Don’t kick any small stones, we were warned, because they could fall down the mine shaft and hit someone in the head. The floor was made entirely of small, loose stones. We stepped carefully past miners sleeping with their heads on plastic jugs, and avoided knocking over the beer cans full of piss. The mine was cool and quiet. The rhythmic pounding of sledgehammer on rock drifted up from below.
A miner named Koomaney, father of twins, said he’d worked in Bisie for three years. He was 41 years old. He had seen Colonel Samy, he said. "A face like a turtle." Not content to merely tax the mineral, last year Samy began sending his men into the mine with guns, to extract the rock themselves. Colonel Samy had recently announced he would tax each member of the worker’s family, including the worker himself, $3 a month. Koomaney wondered aloud how he would afford the extra six bucks a month for his twins.
While we talked, men worked in the darkness around us. They cracked rocks together to expose the cassiterite mineral. A burlap bag was filled with ore and dragged to the side. The bag would be sold to one of the buyers just outside the tunnel, hauled through the jungle, and thrown on a cargo plane. From there the rocks would be hocked in Goma, re-sold for a third time in, say, China, and ultimately wind up in a factory used to make any number of electronics. As I was thinking about this passage, I watched Koomaney lean over to where the men had been banging the rocks together. He scraped the crumbs and powder left behind, cupped it in his hands, and gave it to a little kid, who took it out of the tunnel and returned with a pack of sugar cookies that he had bartered the powder for. Koomaney took the foil package, tore it with his teeth, and ate the cookies. The foil package, drifting down between our feet, said Made in China. It was a kind of alchemy.
We emerged from the mine blinking in the bright daylight, and a group of miners outside the tunnel applauded. One handed me a gin bottle with a hole poked in the bottom and offered a suck. My translator explained their enthusiasm: “They’ve never seen white people get so dirty.”
That night we left the tin mine and went to a neighboring mountain to sleep at an abandoned lodge. The lodge was built by the British and South African conglomerate Mines Processing Congo. MPC is active in many mines around Congo and has the right, technically, to mine Bisie as well. But Colonel Samy had expelled them. There was one remaining MPC employee living in the lodge, a lawyer named Giome Samba. Samba wore a sleeveless lycra shirt and a gold watch and spoke very formal French. We spoke in the living room, which contained a refrigerator and an ice-cream cooler, both non-working (there was no fuel for the generator). It must have taken two days for porters to carry that refrigerator here through the jungle on behalf of the MPC. The company was active in Bisie exactly three days.
“November 26, 2006, until November 29th,” Samba said. “We worked on those days.”
On the 29th, Colonel Samy stepped in and stopped the company from operating. He did this by having his soldiers beat any worker that worked with MPC or sold them mineral.
“Samy asks me, 'Don’t I wonder why he is not arrested?'” Samba said. It was nighttime and as we spoke, huge moths kept kamikazeeing into the candle flame, melting their own abdomens, and then crawling away down the long wood table. “He says, ‘I am sent by my chiefs!’” Samba shrugged. “Samy is always very clear with me.”
Samba told me a story about the time Colonel Samy tried to arrest him for photographing his soldiers beating workers. When the soldiers came to arrest him, Samba was ready. He’d put a phony note on his bed saying he’d gone to some other location on the mine. The squadron fell for the Hardy Boys fake-out, and Samba escaped, racing down through the jungle and onto a plane. He published his photos in several human-rights reports and sparked a brief international outcry. Human-rights groups called for a divestment campaign like the one suggested in the movie Blood Diamond, in which Western companies agree not to buy minerals that benefit warlords. In 2008 the government had the Bisie tin mine closed. Fearing worker rebellion, it was quickly reopened.
“A month later, I returned to Bisie,” Samba continued. Colonel Samy was still there, of course. He was even cordial. He welcomed Samba, but told him that he would have to find new digs. “Mr. Samba, I am tearing down this lodge,” he told him. He was going to dig a mine right on that spot. “Because,” he said, “white people always know where the mineral is.”
Photos by Thomas Rippe