On November 17, 2009, German authorities arrested the head of the largest rebel force in war-torn eastern Congo, charging him with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The rebel force, known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), is at the heart of a war in Congo that has killed an estimated six million people since 1998 – the highest war-related death toll since World War II. While this arrest is a large blow to the FDLR and brings eastern Congo closer to peace, more effort must be made to stop the principal means by which the FDLR and other armed groups get the cash to keep the war in Congo going – namely the trade in minerals that end up in our electronic gadgets such as cell phones, laptops and iPods.
Germany has been home to Ignace Murwanashyaka for over a decade. The FDLR leader actively directed his rebel army’s military operations and strategy in Congo by phone. Murwanashyaka enjoyed a peaceful life in the city of Mannheim while his troops wiped out villages, turned children into soldiers and viciously butchered countless civilians in Congo.
Fighting between the FDLR and the Congolese army has forced nearly one million people from their homes since January 2009, and an estimated 7,000 women and girls have been raped. The FDLR is purposely killing civilians to punish them for perceived support for the UN- and US-backed Congolese army offensive. They regularly use rape as a key part of their war strategy to shock communities in mineral-rich areas. To finance its operations, the FDLR makes millions of dollars annually by taxing and trading minerals such as tin and coltan, which make their way to smelters in Asia and are then processed into electronic circuit boards in our cell phones and computers.
The FDLR is a 6,000-strong Hutu extremist rebel group. Many of its members participated in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. After the genocide the fighters who would later create the FDLR fled westward into eastern Congo, where they’ve since terrorized the region and served as an excuse for neighboring Rwanda to repeatedly invade, occupy and plunder Congo’s minerals.
The regional war in Congo has left over six million dead. An estimated 45,000 people are currently dying every month. It is estimated that over 200,000 women and girls have been raped throughout the Congo’s long war.
Germany had arrested Murwanashyaka in 2006 and attempted to prosecute him for war crimes, but they abandoned the case due to lack of evidence. Allowing the FDLR leader to live freely in exile, however, was undermining Germany’s own investments in stability in eastern Congo. In addition to the millions of dollars in humanitarian and development aid Germany has provided Congo in recent years, Germany led the EU peacekeeping mission sent to help ensure peace during Congo’s 2006 elections, providing 780 soldiers and hosting the mission’s headquarters in Potsdam. During bloody ethnic fighting in northeastern Congo in 2003, Germany sent 350 soldiers to provide medical and logistical assistance to the French-led EU peacekeeping force known as Operation Artemis.
Murwanashyaka’s arrest was likely sparked by a recent series of articles on the FDLR leader and his role in the current fighting in Congo in the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung. As Africa editor Dominic Johnson explained prior to the arrest, “We hope that this investigation will contribute toward raising the profile of this issue in Germany and encouraging the German authorities to take appropriate measures. It is clear that any European effort to bring peace to Eastern DRC has to involve moving against leaders of armed groups operating from Europe with impunity.”
While Murwanashyaka is considered the chief ideologue and “supreme military commander” of the FDLR, other senior leaders continue to live freely in Europe and North America. Secretary-General Callixte Mbarushimana lives in France, for example, and French authorities are indicating that he has a right to act as the rebel force’s spokesman.
While Murwanashyaka was maintaining overall control of the FDLR and its operations, his removal is only one part of a wide-ranging strategy that is badly needed to end the horrors of this protracted war in eastern Congo. A paramount effort in this strategy must include tackling the international trade in minerals that the FDLR and other armed groups in eastern Congo use to get the funds to buy the weapons needed to massacre civilians and prolong the war. To succeed, we as consumers and citizens need to be key players in this effort. This involves encouraging our representatives in government to pass legislation requiring electronics companies to investigate and independently audit their minerals supply chains. This way we can know if we are funding groups like the FDLR when we buy a cell phone or a laptop. While the US Senate and House of Representatives are currently considering such bills – the Congo Conflict Minerals Act and the Conflict Minerals Trade Act, respectively – more countries need to develop similar measures. Since the electronics industry has already spent roughly $6 million this year lobbying to water the bill down, we need to put pressure on electronics companies by writing and urging them to find out and make public where they get their minerals. We have a right to know if they are ultimately sourced from war-torn parts of eastern Congo.
Greg Queyranne, MA, is a Canadian researcher focusing on conflicts in central Africa. He can be reached at [email protected].