Who are the plunderers, and who are the restorers?

In the Congo, who are the plunderers? Sokari Ekine posed this question earlier this week, after having seen Grand Theft Congo. It’s a good question.

Grand Theft Congo tells the story of cassiterite, a mineral that serves as the base for tin. The value of cassiterite skyrocketed when the European Union outlawed lead and replaced lead with tin. Europe rises, and the eastern Congo sinks, literally. As Ekine notes, the minerals are mined by slave labor, but they are transported and purchased by a free market of local comptoirs, or trading houses, and distant corporations. Everyone turns a blind eye. But does this identify the plunderers? Who are the plunderers?

A recent Global Witness report, Faced with a gun, what can you do?: War and the militarisation of mining in eastern Congo, identifies seven military and other armed groups as those who are `plundering minerals’. These groups are a Rwandan Hutu armed group; Tutsi-led rebels backed by Rwanda; another group that allies with different sides at different times; various mai-mai groups in North and South Kivu, organized largely along ethnic lines; a Tutsi cadre; the Congolese national army; and demobilized combatants, especially former mai-mai. The mai-mai were originally local resistance forces opposed to the Rwandan invading armies and militias.

In this report, the term plunder is only used to describe the actions of regional military forces, Congolese or Rwandan. The report documents the comptoirs, or trading houses, that sell and export the minerals, through Rwanda and Burundi, to companies elsewhere, such as Thailand Smelting and Refining Corporation (THAISARCO), the world’s fifth-largest tin-producing company, owned by British metals giant Amalgamated Metal Corporation (AMC); British company Afrimex; and several Belgian companies such as Trademet and Traxys. These then sell their materials to electronics and other industries. These companies all contribute to the violence, but they are not described as plundering.  Why not?

The plunder of the Congo is presented as the Great Plunder, the Rape of the Congo. Some see the plundering as a system. Others argue that the plunder of natural resources can only take place in the context of super exploitation, forced labor, and carnage. For some, this carnage concerns sexual terrorism and militarized rape campaigns. Soldiers rape, commanders condone, women suffer, and the copper, diamonds, cassiterite, coltan keep on moving. And don’t forget the wood, the nickel, the land itself.

But what exactly does it mean, to plunder? “To rob (a place or person) of goods or valuables forcibly, typically in a time of war or civil disorder or in the course of a hostile incursion; to pillage, ransack; to rob systematically; to despoil.” Plunder is always military. In fact, it seems to have first appeared in English during either the Thirty Years’ War, when English soldiers were fighting in southern Germany, or earlier, when English soldiers were fighting in the Low Countries. It took root and effloresced in England during the English Civil War. Wars of empire or civil wars.

But the intricacies of plunder, and of the identity of the plunderers, go further. At its German or Dutch root, plunder meant “to rob of household furnishings.” Plundering involved the violent, militarized seizure of bed-clothes, clothing, baggage, rags, trash, everything. Plunder did not mean to take the most valuable but rather to ravage and ransack the most ordinary, the stuff of everyday life. Plundering is a violation of the most intimate, the trash and rags that comprise our days, that which we cherish most and which the market values least, and it always goes from house to house, from body to body.

The plunder of the Congo is the violent militarized seizure of the everyday, of the ordinary. Women. Men. Children. Forests. Land. Stuff. Even in the story of plunder, which should be their story, they have all been sacrificed to the story of markets, of mineral resources, armed forces, major corporations. They must be restored to the center of their own stories and the story of the Congo.

Who are the plunderers, and who are the restorers, the replenishers, the re-founders? There are the ones who are well known, such as conservationist René Ngongo who has worked with local growers to find ways of sustaining rather than devastating the rainforests of the Congo Basin and who has taken on the mining and logging industries. There’s Dr. Denis Mukwege, at Panzi Hospital of Bukavu, who has tended to survivors of sexual violence. Then there are the thousands, like the Director of Maison d’Écoute (Listening House), ‘whom I will call Rebecca Kamate”, local women and men whose names must be withheld, Congolese women and men who literally turn the swords that have been thrust into them into ploughshares. They are the ones “that have managed to maintain their integrity by not partaking in the plunder of the Congo”, and they too are numerous. Where is their story told, where is their documentary, where is their Congo?

(Photo Credit: International Committee of the Red Cross)