The Congo Holocaust has its origins in minerals plunder and colonialism
By Linda Pentz Gunter
When you’ve lost family members to the Nazi death camps, it’s a pain that never goes away. Six of my relatives were killed there, four more shot in Polish ghettos and at Forlì. They died long before I was born and were people I never knew. But we have their photographs. Their pain stares out from those images, a perpetual ache.
But what use is endless mourning if no lessons are learned? The most important one surely is that no such Holocaust must ever be allowed to happen again? And yet it has. To almost universal silence. No one speaks of today’s six million dead. They lie beneath the mineral-rich soil of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), invisible and unmourned by the world beyond their country’s borders.
“The Holocaust continues in DRC with the complicity of the international community,” Rodrigue Muganwa Lubulu wrote to me in an email exchange. “Women and girls are raped every day and the dead are counted by tens each day.” He is the program director for CRISPAL Afrique and gave a zoom talk recently hosted by ICAN Germany.
The tragedy of the DRC, the second largest country in Africa, began with the discovery in 1915 of the Shinkolobwe uranium deposit, the richest ever discovered at the time. Its plunder, from 1921 until its closure in 2004, “has been a curse for the powerless community” around the mine, said Lubulu, “because not only have they been forced to abandon their lands, houses and fields in favor of uranium mining, but also all the men were forced to dig out those extremely radioactive materials without protective equipment.”
The cancers and other illnesses that killed those uranium workers are still harming the community today, Lubulu says, even though the mine is now shut down.
The DRC was first colonized by Belgium in 1908 and known as the Belgian Congo until it gained independence in 1960. (It was known as Zaire between 1971 and 1997.) It rapidly became a country of great interest, especially to the United State and the then Soviet Union, engaged in a growing Cold War arms race. Then, as now, the country promised riches to its White pillagers. In the Eastern part of the country, wrote Armin Rosen, in a June 26, 2013 article in The Atlantic, “just feet beneath the surface of the earth are enough minerals to keep the global technology and defense industries humming.”
But during World War II, the uranium mined from Shinkolobwe went to the American Manhattan Project. “More than 70 percent of the uranium in the Hiroshima bomb came from Shinkolobwe,” says Lubulu, whose organization is holding workshops and other events in an effort to persuade the government of the DNC to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
He is haunted by what might have been if the “ore of death” as he calls uranium, had instead been left where it belongs; in the ground. “Without the uranium of Shinkolobwe, the 5th of August 1945 would have been a perfect and productive day in Hiroshima,” he said during his ICAN presentation.
This is supported by a recollection from the Manhattan Project’s Colonel Ken Nichols, who wrote: “Without Sengier’s foresight in stockpiling ore in the United States and aboveground in Africa, we simply would not have had the amounts of uranium needed to justify building the large separation plants and the plutonium reactors.” Edgar Sengier was the then director of Union Minière du Haut Katanga, and had stockpiled 1,200 tonnes of uranium ore in a warehouse in New York. This ore and an additional 3,000 tonnes of ore stored above-ground at the mine was purchased by Nichols for use in the Manhattan Project.
That connection between his homeland and Hiroshima, and the haunting reminders of its outcome so movingly expressed by Japan’s Hibakusha, as the atomic bomb survivors are known, is what spurs Lubulu and CRISPAL to urge on the ratification and implementation of the TPNW.
“You cannot separate nuclear weapons from uranium,” Lubulu said. “Once you have one, you get the other. Once you dig it out, it becomes a monster and you can’t control it anymore.”
Tragically, that monster could be unleashed again at Shinkolobwe. Both France and China are interested in mineral rights there. CRISPAL needs to move fast to educate people about these renewed dangers. But they face dangers of their own in doing so.
Since 1997, when internal and cross-border strife took hold in the DRC, at least six million people have died. Trying to leaflet or hold meetings in such communities, especially if it is in opposition to uranium mining, is fraught with danger. No one involved has forgotten the brutal treatment of Congolese anti-uranium mining activist, Golden Misabiko, who was arrested, imprisoned twice, poisoned by his own government in an apparent, and mercifully unsuccessful, assassination attempt, separated from his family and forced into exile.
Despite this, Lubulu believes that, above all, love will find a way. “There is no door that enough love cannot open,” he said in concluding his presentation. Hopefully, the rest of the world will start sending some love in Congo’s direction.
Headline photo of FARDC soldiers on patrol in DR Congo in 2015 by MONUSCO/Wikimedia Commons