War, rape fueled by our phones, computers

By Alyssa Mentzer
November 14, 2010

Editor’s note: This story received 2nd place in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association 2011 Gold Circle Awards for Newspapers

A 57-year-old woman from a village in the Congo was brutally raped by a man. But hers was no ordinary rape.

Women in the Congo are subjected to malicious rape and torture at the hands of warlords looking to extort the country’s resources. These resources include minerals used in our technology. Cell phones and computers have been fueling the conflict for years. –Will Okun / Submitted Photo

In another village nearby a line of 50 women stretched across the dusty grounds of a food distribution camp came to tell their stories to an American journalist about the deadliest weapon in the Congo – rape.

Rape is one of the weapons in the war to control the precious minerals that go into our cell phones and computers.

“Everyone wants to get their hands on those minerals,” Amy Ernst, a rape counselor and New York Times blogger, said. “Even the soldiers are involved. They are raping women and killing people.”

The goal is to control the mines in the Congo that produce the raw materials for our phones and computers.

As of right now 1,100 women are being raped each month and approximately 5.4 million people have died due to the effects of conflict minerals.

Although many have heard about conflict diamonds or “blood diamonds,” less attention has been given to conflict minerals.

Conflict minerals are commodities that are extracted from the mines in the Congo.  Gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten are four precious minerals that are necessary to the development of any electronic product.

In order to instill fear and maintain control, the armed gangs of warlords use rape as their central weapon. Even the soldiers themselves are controlled by the warlords’ threats of personal violence.

“A solider who I had talked to, with thick scars on his wrists, looked beaten down by the world. He was a victim of the war too. He was not necessarily agreeing to the violence and raping women. He was expected to go along with it or his arms would be severed off,” Ernst said.

After being mined and smuggled into other countries, the minerals are then sold to manufacturers of component parts in countries like China.

Then large electronic companies like Apple, Dell, Motorola and Microsoft buy the component parts.

Computer motherboards, circuits and chips are all used to make the finished computers and cellphones.

“You can say, ‘we don’t want to know where our products are coming from,’ that ignorance is bliss, but people would much rather buy conflict-free technology,” Eric Metzgar, video producer and director who has worked in the Congo, said.

But steps are being taken.

In July, the United States passed the Dodd-Frank bill, which requires electronic companies to say whether they are using minerals that fuel rape and war in the Congo.

Although the products may still contain conflict minerals, this certification is the first step towards conflict-free cell phones, laptops and other electronics.

Despite the long-running conflict in the Congo, the country has the potential to prosper since it so rich in minerals.  The small percentage of people controlling a large amount of wealth is what is leaving the Congo in shambles.   Nevertheless, the people of the Congo still hold onto hope that one day things will look up.

“It’s a very resource-filled country,” Metzgar said.  “We saw a lot of resilience in the Congolese people.”

As the U.S. continues to purchase electronics containing conflict minerals, more money is being poured into the hands of the armed forces, who continue to murder and rape the Congolese people.

“People’s stories right from their mouths were the most soul-rattling thing. When you’re looking at them with your own eyes and seeing them, hearing them, smelling them and shaking their hands after an interview and looking in their eyes, it really shakes you up,” Metzgar said. “It makes the crisis a reality.”

Alyssa Mentzer

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