War and Plunder in Eastern Congo

The United States Institute of Peace on February 27 awarded its “Women Building Peace” award to Pétronille Vaweka. She responded: “I weep because at this moment, in … Goma women and children are dying … [and] thousands of families are forced from their villages.”  Goma, population two million, is the capital of North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

For Guardian reporter Owen Jones, the DRC “is the site of the deadliest war since the fall of Adolf Hitler, and yet I doubt most people in the west are even aware of it.” Diminished U.S. and European press coverage of the region’s humanitarian crisis contributed to massive human suffering as, unwatched, lethal violence enabled the wholesale stealing of natural resources.

One million refugees entered eastern DRC from neighboring Ruanda during and after that country’s genocide in 1994. By early 2023 one million newly displaced people had arrived in the Goma region. Within months there would be half a million more. Of the 7.1 milliondisplaced persons in the region now, 97% were displaced due to violent attacks by non-statemilitary forces. The 1.1 million children and 605,000 women who are malnourished exemplify the suffering there.

The UN Refugee Agency describes “targeted attacks against civilians” with “killings, kidnappings, and the burning of homes.” The International Organization for Migration reports that “violence and brutal attacks …  loss of life, mass displacement, and increasing instability” are devastating and that “[a]cross the country, over 26 million people need humanitarian aid.”

War in the eastern DRC has killed six million people over 30 years, according to reporter James Rupert. He indicates that, “More than 250 local and 14 foreign armed groups are fighting for territory, mines or other resources in the DRC’s five easternmost provinces.” Troops from Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi are present. A United Nations peacekeeping contingent will be leaving soon.

The March 23 Movement (M23), formerly troops of the DRC army, figures prominently in the turmoil. This irregular military force, allegedly controlled by Ruanda, occupied Goma in late 2012 and was soon ejected by DRC and UN forces. Having broadened their operations after 2022, M23 detachments regularly execute civilians and force boys and men into their ranks. U.S. press coverage of this brutal war remains skimpy, and the U.S. public is largely uninformed.

The media also steers clear of humanitarian crises associated with war in Sudan and displacement of the Rohingya people from Myanma, in both instances perhaps because U.S. vital interests are not at risk. The U.S. approach toward Sudan apparently is one of watchful waiting, despite reports of growing Russian and Chinese influence and of combatants allying with extremists.

Israel’s war against Palestinians and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza are different. The U.S. government and weapons manufacturers are unreservedly involved and the media and public pay close attention. Maybe there’s a correlation. As long as war, social catastrophe, and U.S. self-interest play out together, the U.S. public is informed. Drop the U.S. involvement, and they are not.

If that’s a rule, troubles in eastern DRC are an exception. U.S. powerbrokers are strongly attracted to the region, but even so, the U.S. public remains oblivious to the situation. James Rupert explains:

“The DRC is a treasury of minerals …, including an estimated 70 percent of the world’s known cobalt, a vital component of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and other green energy products. …Since 2020, the U.S. Energy and Interior Departments have maintained a list of minerals, currently 50 of them, that they judge vital to America’s economy, energy grid or national defense. Many are difficult to access through reliable supply chains and many, including cobalt, copper, lithium, tantalum, tin and titanium, are mined in the DRC, often from illegal mines controlled by armed groups and smugglers, or in industrial mining that is significantly dominated by China.”

Rupert describes U.S. initiatives aimed at promoting mining in Africa, for example, securing investments for “building a $2.3 billion railroad to carry copper and cobalt from Congo and Zambia to Angola’s seaport of Lobito.”

He blames the multitude of “industrial and artisanal mines” in the DRC for human suffering. Paramilitary groups provide security and “hundreds of thousands … who are effectively enslaved” do the work. Importantly, “more than 250 local and 14 foreign armed groups are fighting for territory, mines or other resources in the DRC’s five easternmost provinces.”

With its cheery message of March 14, 2024, the International Trade Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce wins points for salesmanship:

“The DRC offers opportunities large and small.  The DRC’s vast mining wealth attracts top mining companies from around the world … [and] is home to globally significant deposits of hard-rock lithium … Energy is another sector with huge potential for renewable energy, including hydropower and solar. The country has the potential to generate over 100,000 MW of hydropower, which is more than half of Africa’s total hydropower potential.”

Continuing: “Oil and gas discoveries in the east of the country give the DRC the second largest crude oil reserves in Central and Southern Africa … The DRC has the highest agricultural potential in Africa … [and] the potential to feed over 2 billion people with appropriate investment …There are many infrastructure construction opportunities for U.S. companies, with most projects structured as public-private partnerships.”

This U.S. presentation of opportunities for extraction and expropriation of resources does not explain how to pursue them.  A promotion piece, it is far removed from Pétronille Vaweka’s portrayal of, as she sees it, a system “based on brutal, illegal mining of these minerals from our soils and by people working in conditions of slavery.”

Wide dissemination of this grim news would likely shed light on the dark side of capitalism. Capitalism’s much-vaunted magic of the market and its autonomous mode of operating would turn out to be proxies for a kind of anarchy that, built on greed, assures that anything goes. This is a kind of insight that, for those in charge, is best avoided.

To limit the flow of news on human suffering is offensive on other grounds.  Doing so violates “the commons,” items such as water, oxygen in the atmosphere, and knowledge that, essential to human living, must be accessible to everyone. The restriction also hits at the revolutionary notion of human solidarity, the idea that someone else’s pain is ours too.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.