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Interview ‘Congo could be the richest country in the world’

Pastor SIMON NTUMBA talks to the Star about the continuing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo

THE graves rest silently in the depths of the jungle, but the trail beside them continues. The footsteps of porters sink into the soil, as sacks of ore sit on their backs. The trail ends at the Bisie tin mine in northern Kivu, an eastern province of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Down the mine shaft, the miners are caked in soil and water. Flashlights are strapped to the side of their heads, elastic bands holding them in place.

It’s dark deep below the earth, but it is places like this where the ingredients of our everyday lives are scratched out, such as cobalt and coltan, under the watchful eyes of rebel militia or renegade soldiers. It is the beginning of a journey that will end in our hands in the form of mobile phones and laptops.

Conflict minerals like these feed desires for entertainment and fuel continuing conflict in eastern Congo, as large chunks of minerals are smuggled out of the country and sold on to the international market.

Warring militia groups struggle for control over these stretches of soil, where workers often sweat daily for no wages. And just as Victorian Britain’s children would crawl through the coal pits of Merthyr, their Congolese cousins today are consumed in the arduous toil of digging for ore. Children forced into work, ushered along to enter adulthood.

“Congo could be the richest country in the world,” observes Congolese pastor Simon Ntumba. The state of the country he now believes to be worse than when the DR Congo got independence in 1960.

Ntumba was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the DR Congo, in 1970. The struggling young republic was under the tight grip of the military dictatorship of Joseph-Desire Mobutu, enjoying warm relations with Western powers and often bribing the opposition.

Mobutu had lifted the ban on opposition parties in 1990, but the road to democratising the nation was still unpaved, obstructed by the government as protest and civil activism pushed for the rolling out of the road ahead.

By 1993, Ntumba recalls the growing disillusionment among the students in the capital. “The government was unfair, so we resisted the injustice.”

They’d had enough of an education system deprived of any public funding. From primary school to university, funding is forced upon the family. Decades of corruption have left the education system depleted, a social ladder without steps. Ntumba explained that workers would go months without pay, no money to send children to school.

Streams of discontent converged on campus. Law students, then medical students, then the economic department started to organise protests.

“It spread across the country. Young people were willing to fight for their future. There was new ideas, new hope,” Ntumba recalls. “But when we have a good idea and go to the streets, we risk death.”

The DR Congo soon descended into war when its eastern edges were invaded by Rwandan-led troops. The escalation of systematic murder, rape, ethnic killings, and mineral smuggling, combined with the jailing of political opposition. Two civil wars in seven years had shattered families and any sense of hope.

Ntumba left the DR Congo in 2007, five years after the official end of the second civil war. “It was not an easy decision to leave,” he describes. Hope for his country and his church robes were among the possessions he smuggled out of Congo, and brought to Britain.

Ntumba works in Swansea as a pastor, offering religious support for his international congregation of around 25 worshippers. Many are Congolese refugees.

“Once inside the church, politics is left outside,” he says. “I don’t mix ideologies of church and politics. I offer a message of hope and love.”

The continuing conflict in the DR Congo has created large pockets of an active diaspora across continents.

“We have a diaspora all over the world and we are always in touch. We urge the people in the country to get to where they are. Because it is our duty, our responsibility.”

Yet communication networks in and out of the DR Congo are risky for those who are caught. “Everybody who is in Congo right now, trying to give information to the people who are outside, they are in trouble. As soon as they get them, they are jailed.” 

The same is true for returning Congolese. “I know a lot of people from the diaspora, when they visit Congo, they are arrested,” he says.

“We have been organising very strong protests within Britain almost every month … We organise in London. We go to the Parliament, but these protests are not heard about it in the media.

“The UK government knows the situation and we have tried to build a relationship so they can help us put pressure on the [DRC] government … But, when we come to claim our rights, seeking help from the UK government, nothing happens.”

While much of the Western media appears to have tuned out to a conflict that has claimed the lives of move than five million people — the deadliest since World War II — other outlets keep it in the spotlight.

One such outlet is Pambazuka News, a pan-African magazine focusing on civil and human rights. Henry Makori is an editor of Pambazuka based in Kenya. “There is reluctance on the part of the media to give detailed and prolonged accounts of these conflicts,” Makori says. “There is still the view within Western thinking that war/conflict is the ‘normal’ state of affairs.”

Yet there are interests lurking under the scarred Congolese landscape, such as the Bisie mine in North Kivu. “The wars in Congo are about resources,” Makori exlpains. “Powerful Western interests benefit from minerals in areas controlled by assorted militias.

“The instability benefits companies that use Congolese resources. They deal directly with the militias that control the mineral areas and not the Congolese government. 

“The Congolese wars are a great source of revenue for Western countries that manufacture and sell arms to militias.”  

Reports by numerous NGOs, including Amnesty International, have traced conflict minerals in which child labour has been used, from the DR Congo down the production line that ends up in consumer products made by Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Sony and Volkswagen.

Ntumba can’t return home. Conditions are too dangerous. 

He knows people who have returned and have been put in jail, but life in Wales is not a quiet resting place.

“Sometimes we don’t want to be here,” Ntumba reflects. “Although it is Europe, though it is democracy, and freedom, there are areas in which we are not happy. 

“We are not really free, the way we should be. Do you really think all the refugees here are happy?”
 

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