It is certainly disconcerting to learn that certain components in your laptop computer and mobile phone might be contributing to a faraway African war. But to meet women who’ve suffered unimaginably in that faraway war made me want to find out for certain if what I heard was true. Is the laptop I use to serve suffering saints inadvertently causing them to run for their lives?
For the average Westerner, sorting out Central Africa’s long-standing conflicts is not an easy task. The factions are referred to by acronyms like FDLR, CNDP and M23. The reasons for the region’s genocides, past and present, large and small, are various. But one more recent reason has been the strife over “conflict minerals” that are mined in eastern Congo. Those minerals have names like tantalite, cassiterite and wolframite, and they’re found in most consumer electronics. Profits from the sale of those minerals has been bankrolling African armies and rebel groups for years.
In eastern Congo, armed groups are reportedly present at more than 50% of the mining sites. Civilians, including children, are often forced to work up to 48-hour shifts in dangerous conditions. (To view a National Geographic photo essay about Congo’s mines, click here.) And as factions have fought over those minerals and mines, hundreds of thousands of people have been caught in the crossfire. Villages are often attacked and burned to the ground. Rape and other violence are used to control local populations.
One of the people caught in that crossfire is a woman named Ferrar, whom I met in February when I was visiting DR Congo. She’s a refuge in Goma, a Congolese city with a population that has swelled 400% in the past five years due to the region’s refugee crisis. Traumatized villagers arrive in Goma practically every day, adding numbers to the squalid camps of the displaced.
Ferrar was 11 years old when she fled to Goma with her older sister, her uncle, and his family, making a journey of 132 miles from her home village. But Goma did not provide the safety Ferrar hoped to find. There she was raped by militia men, and she became pregnant at the age of 13. When Ferrar’s uncle learned of her pregnancy, he kicked her out of his shack, since rape victims are considered impure in Congolese culture. Now 16, Ferrar and her little son, Crispin, live in their own makeshift home of tree branches and plastic sheeting.
I was happy to learn that, although rejected by her natural family, Ferrar hasn’t been rejected by her heavenly family. After her son was born, she heard about a training program offered by a local pastor that teaches young women and widows marketable skills such as sewing, basket weaving, soap making, and weaving handbags from discarded plastic bags. Ferrar, along with other young women and widows, is now learning a skill, plus finding community and healing.
While I was in Goma, Heaven’s Family helped to meet some very pressing needs of Ferrar and more than forty other refugee families, providing blankets, mattresses, plastic sheeting and cooking pots, all thanks to gifts to our Christian Refugees Fund.
Returning home, I was also happy to learn that in 2010 the U.S. government enacted a law requiring publicly listed American companies to disclose if any of their products contain minerals from mines controlled by armed groups in or around Congo. Even prior to that, leading electronics companies such as Intel, Motorola and HP had already been tracking sources of minerals used in their products. Since 2012, for example, Intel’s microprocessors have used conflict-free tantalum.