Centuries on, Violence in the Congo Continues

The horrors of the Belgian Congo echo through the centre of Africa today. The same exploitation of resources takes place, the same atrocities are committed and there is the same desperate need for change. This gives rise to the aphoristic question: is history doomed to repeat itself? Rewinding history 132 years, The King of the Belgians – Leopold II ruled his empire in the Congo from 1880 to 1907 by terror. Leopold controlled commerce through concessionary companies who aggressively competed for natural resources, particularly wild rubber, and exploited the local population by placing unrealistically high quotas on rubber-gathering villages. Rubber collecting depended on forced labour, and sentries were merciless in obtaining a steady supply. During his reign ten million died, halving the Congolese population. Atrocities such as unlawful seizure of land and property, mutilation, mass starvation, rape, torture, executions, surprise raids, village burning and floggings occurred in order to maximise rubber extraction. Rubber was highly profitable due to the global rubber boom and automobile development; concession companies such as the notorious Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company (ABIR) were determined to prosper from this and plundered the Congo.


Illustration of Sentries attacking a village of Bolima. Reprinted from The Graphic magazine (January 1906)

The situation in the Congo today is arguably as violent and exploitative as it was during the rubber boom. Rubber has been replaced by four highly profitable minerals used in mobile phones, iPods and laptops: tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. The foreign oppressor has been replaced by local and neighbouring militias. The market for the Congo’s resources is enormous due to the global demand for electronic products. In 2011, three million kilograms of tantalum were used worldwide, 60% going directly into the electronics industry (Kovach and Way, 2012).


A woman fleeing the violence waged by soldiers and militias. From The Crisis in the Congo video (2011)

This has led to rebel groups in the Congo enslaving entire villages to extract these minerals for warlord profit, at an average of £13 million a month. Competing militias who force people to work in the mines or demand “taxes” from workers control approximately 98% of Eastern Congo’s mines. A large proportion of the workers are children who earn up to one dollar a day. The local civilian populations are terrorized into submission through murder, rape and the burning of villages. Since 1998, over 6 million Congolese have died. Sexual violence in the Congo is widely acknowledged to be at an unprecedented level, with a report revealing that 48 women are raped every hour. The majority of the Global North wants luxury goods and colludes with electronic manufactures by ignoring the humanitarian price paid for these, whether through lack of awareness, apathy, or plain disregard.

The violence experienced in the Congo over a hundred years ago and today was, and is, wholesale. These atrocities are exceptional in that they symbolise not only the murder of people but also a systematic endeavour that obliterates the very notion of their being human. They are what we call “crimes against humanity”, and evoke a human duty to end such terror. This moral imperative was successfully undertaken in the nineteenth century by the Congo Reform Association (CRA) led by Edmund Morel and Roger Casement, who exposed the injustices, relentlessly kept the cause in the public eye, and pressured the British government to intervene.

The CRA was the first humanitarian movement to use atrocity photography. Publications and lantern slide shows reached vast audiences and gathered support for reform in the Congo. They were successful in their aim to stimulate a moral reaction. As Susan Sontag wrote in 1979, “photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one and can help build a nascent one”. This was especially the case in an era when photography was a new medium. Today’s extensive photographic archive of worldwide injustice has since generated a familiarity with atrocity that has made the abhorrent seem normal and inevitable. The saturation of shocking images has deadened the conscience, making it harder to arouse a response. At the time of Leopold’s Congo the public would have had no immunity to photography’s impact; offenses in distant regions were made visible for the first time. The wide circulation and effective use of photography captured the public conscience and drove a fierce international campaign.


Boaji lost her foot after being mutilated by soldiers of the Congo Free State Government. Reprinted from The Graphic magazine (January 1906)

In 1907 Morel denounced Leopold’s atrocities as “a crime unparalleled in the annals of the world”. He would be deeply dismayed to see the torment paralleled today, especially as the crisis is not receiving the exposure it deserves. Howard French from the New York Times and Associate Professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism stated: “Millions of Congolese people have lost their lives and it has warranted almost no sustained and enterprising reporting from the media of the world, it has obtained no great purchase on the popular imagination.” However, there is one increasingly loud voice: the Enough Project’s Raise Hope for Congo Campaign led by John Prendergast and Gayle Smith, which is demanding the media shine a light on this catastrophic crisis.


Maria breastfeeds one of her three children in Nizi, Ituri province. She lost her arm defending her children. Photo by Marcus Bleasdale (2010)

Campaigners are raising awareness about the conflict in the Congo, the role of conflict-minerals funding it, and the effects of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The Enough Project is trying to create a mass consumer demand for conflict-free products, enabling us as consumers to know whether our purchases are financing the armed groups controlling the mines. It is hoped that electronic companies will act with greater due diligence, have a transparent minerals supply chain, and launch an internationally supported certification system to ensure minerals are conflict-free. By pressuring electronics companies to remove conflict-minerals from their supply chains, we can help remove the financial fuel driving the armed groups and their atrocities on the ground.

If history is set to repeat itself, let us hope that the public will galvanize itself to support the Conflict-Free campaign in the same way it successfully rallied behind the CRA.

To take action please visit: Raise Hope For Congo.

Katie Bryant