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Pique'n'yer interest

Bringing conflict minerals out of the darkness

Far away from the snow draped mountains of Whistler, the excited chatter about the 2010 Winter Games and the tired smiles of people slowly coming out of the recession - a bloody war is waging in the depths of Africa. In the so-called Heart of Darkness.

It is a war that has been characterized since its birth in 1998 by the most despicable human crimes imaginable: not just by bombs and tanks and guns, but by rape, sex slaves, mutilation and cannibalism. By victims being tied together before their throats are collectively slit in one big, fatal swoop.

And yet, you likely won't read about this war in the newspaper. A scant number of news articles have been published on its bloodshed over the past decade. It isn't a secret war, unknown to reporters and broadcasters. Instead, for whatever reason, it has become an ignored war.

But first, let's go over the statistics.

The numbers associated with this Heart of Darkness clash are so staggering, one wishes they could have been made up by a Hollywood screenwriter instead of being the terrifying reality of a nation spiraling out of control. In terms of dead bodies, this war has claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives as a result of fighting, famine and disease, which is significantly larger than the Darfur conflict's ghastly 19,500 to 400,000 death toll and the civil war in Sierra Leone's 50,000 death toll. To put things further into perspective, the number of people who are estimated to have died in this ignored war is 1.5 million more than the total number of people living in British Columbia.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that it is being called the second deadliest conflict to scar the surface of the earth after World War II.

Today, estimates peg the number of people dying at approximately 45,000 per month - that's 1,500 deaths a day - and half the people killed are children under the age of five. An estimated 200,000 women have been raped.

So where is this war? And why haven't you heard much about it?

The first question is easier to answer. This brutal war sets its scene in the third largest country in Africa and the 19th most populated country in the world, in a place formerly known as Zaire and currently as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or more simply the DRC.

It's a massive country, sitting defiantly in the centre of Africa, with borders stretching east to Sudan and Uganda and so far west they brush the Atlantic Ocean's coastline. Its folds of land are magnificently adorned with stretches of lush rainforests that house rare animal species like the Okapi and Mbuti pygmies underneath pristine vegetation.

It's also vital to note that the DRC holds many rich mineral deposits, the kinds of lusted-over minerals that send some men into frenzies. Minerals like diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, zinc, uranium, and coltan. Conflict minerals. (FYI, coltan is used to manufacture mobile phones and computers, most likely including the ones you own.)

Where there is smoke, there is fire. And where there are conflict minerals in Africa, there is devastation.

Despite DRC's inherent blessings, it is dead poor. Massive stretches of the country have little electricity, roads, railways, health care or education centres. Hundreds of thousands of people working in the mines are allegedly working under illegal conditions, and a 2006 study by the United Nations Children's Fund stated there are also 20,000 children working in the mines.

A more recent report by the United Nation's Security Council traced the flow of illegal minerals from Congo to Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, and then onto Europe and Asia. Rebels are funneling the minerals in exchange for weapons. The illicit network also involves Spanish charities, Ukrainian arms dealers, corrupt African officials and secretive North Korean weapons shipments, according to an article published in the New York Times.

Which leads to the second question: why haven't you heard much about the DRC in the international section of newspapers or the world reports on TV?

That question is slightly trickier. While there have been snippets of news reports across the pages of major newspapers, those clips are for the most part brief, cryptic, and have not been published nearly frequently enough to do justice to the massive turmoil taking place in the DRC on a daily basis. In fact the lack of news coverage pales - absolutely pales - in comparison to the coverage of H1N1, Michael Jackson's death and even the Balloon Boy.

It begs the question of whether this lack of news coverage is because people view this as yet another Africa tragedy not worth paying attention to. More bluntly, it begs the question of whether the disinterest in the DRC is crass racism. Is it ironic that this country was also the setting of Joseph Conrad's novella, The Heart of Darkness?

Until the questions about the DRC war's news coverage are answered, it is imperative for the international community to keep trying to readjust its focus on this conflict and the clear link between the 5.4 million death toll and our computers and cell phones.

The more we can be informed about what is going on in DRC, the more we can move conflict minerals like coltan out of the darkness and into the spotlight.