The Democratic Republic of Congo is in the news again, and per usual, it’s not good news. The Times of London reports a new, especially sordid chapter in the ongoing scandal of UN peacekeepers sexually exploiting the young Congolese women they are charged with protecting. A French logistics expert who worked at the Goma airport was arrested in a sting operation before he could rape a 12 year old girl who had been sent to his house. When police raided his home, they found his bedroom had been turned into a photography studio, with large mirrors around three sides of the bed and a remote-controlled camera on the other side. Three home-made videos and dozens of photos were found – according to the Times, these photos and videos are also for sale in eastern DRC. (The accused paedophile has been sent back to France and is in prison, facing charges of sexually assaulting a minor.)
Abuse of Congolese girls – usually involving the exchange of sexual favors for small amounts of money or food – is reportedly widespread in the eastern DRC, where 11,000 peacekeepers and 1,000 UN-related civilians are stationed. Based on over 150 formal complaints, the UN instituted a “zero tolerance policy”, which prohibits UN employees from having sexual relations with Congolese under the age of 18, though the local age of consent is 14. But, according to the Times:
Jordan’s Prince Zeid Raad Al Hussein, a special adviser to the UN Secretary-General, who led one investigative team, said in a confidential report obtained by The Times: “The situation appears to be one of ‘zero-compliance with zero- tolerance’ throughout the mission.”
A female UN staffer, commenting on the story, reminds us that this is hardly the first time Europeans have done terrible things in the eastern Congo: ““Never forget this is Heart of Darkness country. People do things here just because they can.”
Tempting as it is to suggest that MONUC pull out of DRC, that’s probably not the right move, and certainly not the right time. According to a reportby the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region (a UK parliamentary committee), reported by the BBC, massive quantities of arms are flowing into eastern DRC. The report suggests that sufficient arms have entered the area that armed groups may be encouraged to restart violence in the region.
While it’s certainly legitimate to blame MONUC for failing to disarm militias and stop the arms trade, the problem is vastly complicated by utter governmental failure in eastern DRC. The area is vast, isolated, difficult to navigate, and only under the loosest control of the Kinshasa government – there’s almost no border control and absolutely no airspace control.
As a result, there are hundreds of “ghost airstrips” buried in the jungle, where Russian-made Antonov aircraft land with loads of small arms, usually manufactured in Bulgaria or Ukraine. The arms are exchanged for gold, rough diamonds, coltan, or other minerals. According to a 2001 report from the UN, many of the nations that border DRC are used as transshipment points for these contraband minerals – profits from this trade in minerals return to government-supported militias in eastern DRC.
What sort of evil bastard would smuggle guns into a warzone to trade them for minerals mined at gunpoint? Viktor Bout, for one. Dubbed “the merchant of death” by a British foreign minister, Bout’s life story is something out of a spy novel. Born in Tajikistan, trained as a translator for the KGB, Bout began smuggling arms in the 1990s. He gained some international attention in 1995 when one of his aircraft, loaded down with weapons for Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, was forced down by the Taliban. Sensing a business opportunity, Bout began supplying arms to the Taliban, as well as Osama Bin Laden. At the same time, Bout’s aircraft – operating under a number of African flags of convenience, and flying from Belgium’s Ostead airport, and later from airports in the UAE – smuggled arms to many of the major conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. (The UK Parliamentary report pays special attention to a Bout-connected helicopter that crashed near Goma, overloaded with cassiterite, a tin ore.)
President Bush, noting Bout’s Taliban connections, signed an executive order last summer prohibiting Americans from doing business with Bout. Evidently Kellog, Brown and Root (everyone’s favorite Haliburton subsidiary) didn’t get the memo – until August of this year, they subcontracted business to Air Bas and British Gulf, both Bout-controlled companies. Newsweek reports that Bout-connected planes landed in Iraq 142 times last year, dropping off loads and refueling. (A similar story from the LA Times.)
Interested in learning more about mineral and gun-smuggling in central Africa? (Of course you are.) Let me recommend the following links:
Frontline’s resource page from “Gunrunners”, their documentary on Bout and other gun smugglers.
The UN’s 2001 report on the looting of the DRC.
APP Great Lakes report on recent arms smuggling in DRC.