The computer or tablet on which you're reading this post is more likely than not shrouded in blood.
You see, diamonds aren't the only minerals at the heart of violent conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. In the October issue of National Geographic, reporter Jeffrey Gettleman and photographer Marcus Bleasdale journey to Congo, where the mines yield bountiful treasure, from gold to cobalt to copper. But more valuable than all the jewelry in the world is an element called tantalum, used to make microchips for electronics. And thus those wonderful, seemingly magical devices ultimately perpetuate one of the worst humanitarian crises in one of the most brutal places on earth.
The first child soldier pops out of the bush clutching an AK-47 assault rifle in one hand and a handful of fresh marijuana buds in the other. The kid, probably 14 or 15, has this big, goofy, mischievous grin on his face, like he’s just stolen something—which he probably has—and he’s wearing a ladies’ wig with fake braids dangling down to his shoulders. Within seconds his posse materializes from the thick, green leaves all around us, about ten other heavily armed youngsters dressed in ratty camouflage and filthy T-shirts, dropping down from the sides of the jungle and blocking the red dirt road in front of us. Our little Toyota truck is suddenly swarmed and immobilized by a four-and-a-half-foot-tall army.
This is on the road to Bavi, a rebel-controlled gold mine on the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s wild eastern edge. Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country and one of its richest on paper, with an embarrassment of diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, you name it—trillions’ worth of natural resources. But because of never ending war, it is one of the poorest and most traumatized nations in the world. It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand that militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos. Turns out your laptop—or camera or gaming system or gold necklace—may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.
In recent years, U.S. lawmakers and corporate leaders have tried to lessen the technology industry's dependence on the fruits of such chaos, and great strides have been made -- but there's still so far to go. The number of conflict-free mines pales in comparison to those that fund violent rebels, furthered by a long-established system of cooperation between weak government officials and powerful militia leaders.
"They are all sharing the illegal spoils. It’s a scramble. It’s grab as much as you can," a United Nations official told Gettleman. "There’s no easy solution," he added, "and I’m not even sure there is any solution.”
Read more about Congo's conflict minerals in the October 125th anniversary issue of National Geographic magazine.
Take a look at harrowing images from the mines taken by Marcus Bleasdale. You can find the entire slideshow on the National Geographic website.
A child is put to work at a militia-run mine in Watsa. (Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic)
Workers rip the earth apart in search of gold at the Sufferance mine in the Ituri region. Much of Congo’s gold, more than $600 million worth a year, is smuggled across borders. (Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic)
Gold is now the most lucrative of conflict minerals. Illicit profits from tin, tungsten, and tantalum have dropped 65 percent since 2010, when the campaign to link minerals with violence began gaining ground. (Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic)
A boy waits his turn for spoonfuls of rice and beans in Pluto. In some areas of eastern Congo up to 40 percent of gold miners are children, often forcibly recruited by militias. (Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic)
Already a soldier, a boy with an assault rifle pedals to base camp during fighting in the Ituri region in 2003. Photographer Marcus Bleasdale says that of all of his images from the Congo, this one has provoked the most response from the public. (Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic)
All images are from the October 125th anniversary issue of National Geographic magazine.