A journey to the "heart of darkness", among guerrillas, Chinese motorbikes and gold diggers.
text by Raffaele Masto - photos by Livio Senigalliesi

Flying over the Great Lakes, in the heart of Africa, is a wonderful sight.
It's the raining season and the small Cessna flies low to avoid the menacing clouds.
This is a great opportunity to enjoy a landscape that looks like it has just been created: the airplane passes over the great lakes set in the Rift geological split; the huge Lake Victoria, Lake Albert, Lake Edward, the Kivu and finally the Tanganika to the south. Their deep blue waters are dominated by the majestic massif of Ruwenzori and by the volcanic chain of Virunga. A mythical region travelled two centuries ago by brave missionaries and explorers looking for Nile sources.

The incredible geographical beauty of this region clashes with the tragic problems which afflict it and you find it out pretty soon.
When the airplane sets the route and starts going down towards the small airport of Bunia, the capital city of the Congolese north-eastern region of Ituri, the tiny villages scattered on the hills look deserted, then you see the short airport strip and in a few minutes you land.

The enchanting beauty of the area disappears and you soon realize that you've ended up in one of the biggest worldwide reservoir of malnutrition and diseases, with thousands of refugees and displaced people, sentenced to death for illnesses elsewhere treatable This tragic situation is the direct consequence of the creeping war and of the chronic instability of the area.
The hills that from above looked like soft mountains covered with humid savannah spots and rain forest are the refuge of several guerrilla groups, gangs of desperate armed men who attack villages and sack them, abducting the children, the males to become child-soldiers, the females sex slaves. In a word, they frighten the people who are forced to leave their homes and in this way increase the number of displaced people and refugees, causing famine, malnutrition and diseases.

Until 2002 Bunja was one of the main centres of the civil war which hit the area. Since then peace has been on the paper but as a matter of fact the reconstruction of the territory and its social net has never occurred . You leave the city and drive along one of the impossible tracks which lead to the neighbouring centres.
The only economical activities you can see along the road are agriculture, a few square metres around the huts, and gold mining in alluvial soil, which is here a widespread activity.
In river bends and marshes you can often find gold alluvial fields which attract crowds of amateur gold-diggers searching for gold nuggets and straws in the mud with simple sieves; gold is not such a precious metal here as you cannot eat it.

The gold-diggers who crowd these opencast mines are mainly children and teenagers who don't have much choice.
Chombè is about 20 years old, wears a worn-out pair of denims, and a Batman t-shirt; he tells his story while standing in the muddy water of a great puddle up to his tights, at the side of a river not far from Bunja.
"Here we work together, I'm the oldest and the boss. Every night I collect all the gold we have found, I know who to sell gold to. Then we share the money which is never enough; we hope to find a big nugget and get rich. It's like playing poker, you hardly ever win.
Chombè and his companions work from dawn to sunset and they usually get just enough money to eat twice a day and to go back the following morning to the same puddle.
"It's not a good job, he says, but the only other opportunity would be going back to what I did before: during the war I was with a guerrilla group, I was very young but I had a Kalashnikov. I could have stayed with them, when you have a weapon you have always something to eat and in the villages people fear you; you don't have to struggle to find food or women but you have to live in the forest and if the Army finds you they kill you."

Chombè's words are the best explanation to what happens in the faraway regions of Congo, which are remote but very rich of cobalt, uranium, coltan, besides gold.
These materials could be a blessing for these peoples but they are instead a curse. War, political instability, and the armed groups which raid the forest are the result of the greed of countries, political elites, corporations, wheeler-dealers and economical lobbies which fight to get the control over the area and its richness.
Nowadays peace reigns in Bunja but the echo of what happens in the region around it arrives unmistakably.
There's no work and the only cars around the city are the white four-wheel drive of UN agencies and of the International Cooperation. For everybody else there are motorbike-taxi, capacity 125, brand SENKE, made in China.

To drive them you find youngsters who invented this job to avoid falling into the only 2 opportunities that are offered to them here: becoming members of a guerrilla group and earning their living with a Kalashnikov, or playing a poker game in one of the many puddles outside Bunja. We can consider their choice as a commendable one, unfortunately there are too many motorbike-taxis at the crossroads compared to the request.

COOPI projects to help women and children
The Eastern regions of Congo are one of the places in the world where the humanitarian agencies register one of the highest rate of human rights violations against women and children: women are raped during guerrilla raids in the villages and then often infected by HIV, children are forced to become child-soldiers. Several humanitarian agencies that work in the area try to face these issues Among them, the Italian NGO COOPI has been carrying out projects financed by UN Agencies since 2000. COOPI works in this context to help the psychological recovery of the victims of violence, it mediates in the families and villages to encourage the reintegration, it promotes education and professional training to start a new life, it helps local leaders to restore a system of social protection from violence.

Economical lobbies behind guerrilla groups.
Ituri and Kivu forests are raided by several guerrilla groups. The most known internationally are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda; it is reckoned there are between 4000 and 6000 militiamen, often very young. This group made up by Hutu members, was born after the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Former army and Interhamwe members who fled across the border are the ones accused of being the authors of the massacres of almost a million Rwandan Tutsis. Over the years their ranks have been increased in number by children and teenagers abducted in the villages. Then the LRA, the Lord Resistance Army, a group born in Uganda at the beginning of the nineties and first led by a Woman, Alice Lakawena, who promised her guerrillas immortality, thanks to Christian Faith and to a mixture of tradionaL rites. The mad ideology of this group aims to create a country based on the Bible and the Ten Commandments. As a matter of fact in 20 years they have abducted tens of thousands of children, forcing the males to become guerrillas and the females commanders' concubines.
When Alice Lakawena left the stage, his nephew Joseph Kony, sought by the International Court for War Crimes, took the lead. These groups often represent the interests of the powers of the region and of the great international economic lobbies which want to get control over the Eastern region of Congo.

Gold and noble metal illegal trade.
A new UN report, recently discussed at the UN Security Council, relates the latest gold and weapon illegal trade which, besides the guerrilla groups and corrupted politicians, would apparently involve 2 Spanish humanitarian organizations. It seems there is a widespread criminal net based on rebel groups smuggling gold and other noble minerals in exchange for weapons. This net is said to be helped by powerful Ukrainian and Belarus dealers and by the local and international wheeler-dealers.

According to the UN report, every year 36 tons of gold are smuggled out of Congo towards Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, for an estimated value of more than a billion dollars.

The report underlines also the failure of MONUC, the UN international mission which has been working in Congo for years. It is the biggest mission UN has ever deployed, with more than 20,000 men with a mandate limited to the protection of civilians. A mandate which has not been honoured since the number of refugees, displaced people and raped women has constantly increased.