Frederic Gautier has been thinking a lot about death recently. The miner, from South Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), thought about it as he cowered under his bed to escape a deadly ambush at his mine. The thought returned when he was subsequently captured by armed men and forced to carry stolen minerals on his back through the forest.
The father-of-six survived but others were not so lucky. Four miners reportedly lost their lives in the same attack at Lukoma cassiterite mine two months ago, as well as a pregnant woman who sold merchandise near the site. The perpetrators, believed to be affiliated with local armed groups known as the ‘Raia Mutomboki’, reportedly stole everything they could find, including clothes, food, and solar panels. They also stole cassiterite – a valuable tin ore that that can be traded internationally for use in products, such as phones, laptops and cars.
This is not uncommon. Armed groups have preyed on eastern DRC’s mineral sector for more than fifteen years. They have taxed and traded minerals – such as the cassiterite found in Lukoma, and tungsten, tantalum and gold – to help fund brutal violence. Millions of people have been displaced within the country due to armed conflict in the east.
The European Parliament is set to vote on its first conflict minerals regulation aimed at cleaning up the trade this coming week. The European Union accounted for more than 15 per cent of global imports in tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold in 2013, an amount valued at around €22.9bn. Yet it currently has no legislation compelling companies to check if their mineral purchases fund conflict or human rights abuses overseas.
This risk is all too real for many. It took Mr Gautier 16 hours to travel from the armed group’s camp to a small town in Walungu territory. He remembered the moment when the armed men arrived at his mine, at about 5am, vividly. “They came and encircled the camp where we were and they began firing bullets… I was under my bed for one hour. During this time I was thinking about death. No one thought they’d come out alive,” he said.
“Afterwards, we carried packages of the [pillaged] goods into a place in the forest. I had to transport cassiterite…They made us walk very fast because they were frightened that [another armed group] would come after them… they told us that if their injured member died during the walk then they’d kill us too.”
Mr Gautier did not want to disclose his real name, or be photographed, fearing consequences. In the town he arrived in, there were several other people who escaped the attack at Lukoma. Women, who sold merchandise at the mine, told me that they huddled together in the nearby forest to avoid the armed men. One hid deep in the pits. Some saw the bodies of those killed.
Europe is not the first market to turn its attention to the conflict minerals trade. The United States requires publicly-listed companies to report on their mineral supply chains, if sourcing from DRC or neighbouring countries. Twelve African countries have endorsed mandatory reporting, while China has just introduced voluntary guidelines promoting a clean trade.