IN 1890, A BEARDED YOUNG POLISH SEAMAN made a trip up the Congo River as a steamboat officer and was appalled by the lust for riches he saw among his fellow Europeans. A decade later he finally got the experience onto paper. "A stream of manufactured goods, rubbishy cottons, beads and brass-wire" flowed into the interior, wrote Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, "and in return came a precious trickle of ivory...The word 'ivory' rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it."
The trickle of ivory that Conrad described was highly visible: elephant tusks carried on the shoulders of exhausted porters from the African interior to the coast, where it could be shipped off to Europe to be carved into jewelry, piano keys, and false teeth. More than 100 years later, far more wealth flows out of this same territory, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, but today much of it can't be seen. If, for example, you stand beside the washboard dirt road that winds out of the Ituri district of the country's northeast, you will see a few vehicles, not more than five or 10 an hour: a dusty SUV, an army jeep, two men on a motorbike, an ancient truck with a precariously high load of fruits and vegetables and a layer of people hitching a ride on top. But you won't see the treasure they are carrying, for it is too small. It will be in little plastic bags in someone's pocket, or perhaps, better to be concealed from thieves and greedy policemen, sewn into a shirt seam or slipped under a shoe's insole. In this part of the country the main source of wealth is gold. More than $1 billion worth is mined in Congo each year, and a good portion of it comes down this road.
Gold is only one of a half-dozen or more lucrative minerals to be found in Congo, and together they constitute what may be the worst case on Earth of what has come to be known as the "resource curse." As inevitably as oil drew the United States into Iraq, it is the temptations of this wealth—more than ethnic rivalries, the legacy of colonialism, or anything else—that has turned Congo into the horrific battleground it has been in recent years. A country with a lavish array of natural riches and a dysfunctional government is like a child heiress without a guardian: Everyone schemes for a piece of what she's got.
As far back as Congo's history is recorded, the wealth from this vast natural treasure house has flowed almost entirely overseas, leaving some of the planet's best-endowed land with some of its poorest people. I have often heard Congolese friends say, "We wouldn't have so much trouble if we weren't so rich."
Dealers in mining towns buy diamonds, gold, and whatever else locals can wrest from the ground by hand.
Of all the minerals to be found here, none has for so long lit up the eyes of foreigners as the yellow metal that has shaped the course of conquest on almost every continent. And today, with worldwide economic troubles and ever-rising demand from electronics manufacturing (see "The Scary Truth About Your iPhone") sending its price to unimagined heights, a new gold rush is in the making in Congo. Some of the richest goldfields in all of Africa lie up this dirt road, which begins some 350 miles east of the turnaround point of Conrad's nightmare steamboat trip up the Congo River. The journey there, I hope, will be a way of seeing some of this country's tragic—for there is no other word for it—wealth at its point of origin, before it vanishes into jewelry stores and bank vaults and electronics plants in Europe and China, New York and California.
The road begins in war-battered Bunia, capital of the Ituri district. Driving up it, through the East African savanna toward the rainforest of the interior, is like a journey in time. Each bend takes you past reminders of the region's long, unhappy history and of the successive waves of people who have sought wealth here, most recently in a dozen years of sporadic, bloody fighting that has largely fallen out of the headlines yet still continues, particularly in two provinces just south of Ituri.
From 1895 onward, Europeans eagerly reported traces of gold in Ituri, but only in 1903 did two Australian prospectors, hired by the colonial authorities, examine a riverbed near a village called Krilo and confirm that the find was potentially lucrative. Whites promptly mangled the name into Kilo, and a few years later the first leg of this road was built for bringing in mining equipment by oxcart. Congo was then the world's only privately owned colony; its shrewd and ruthless proprietor, King Leopold II of Belgium, had early on in Europe's great landgrab secured what he called "a slice of this magnificent African cake." Belgium itself had not been interested in acquiring a colony, but for its business-minded king—a constitutional monarch with only limited powers at home—that presented an opportunity: He hired the explorer Henry Morton Stanley to stake out boundaries for him and then pulled off the lobbying coup of the century by persuading the United States and most of Europe to recognize this vast territory as his personal property.
The gold diggers the king put to work here were different from those mining gold at the same time in the Klondike, for they arrived in chains. Leopold's entire colonial economy was based on forced labor, and the system continued after the king, in 1908, sold his slice of the African cake to the Belgian government (which finally saw how profitable a colony could be) and it became the Belgian Congo.
By the following year there were 1,400 African forced laborers at Kilo; within six years, as mining sites proliferated in the region, the number of people forced to work at them reached 7,500, and it would expand far more. As it happened, the arrival of miners was a boon for white ivory traders: They now had a market for the rest of the elephant, selling dried meat to the mines for their workers. The Belgians requisitioned laborers from local chiefs and supplied the chains and metal collars or yokes in which they were taken off to the mines. Chiefs were punished if they failed to provide their quota of men, and were required to supply food and building materials from their villages as well. The mining industry was hungry for labor, not just to dig for gold, but to carry supplies, firewood, and equipment in weeks-long caravans to the mine sites. Of the women I see now in long, brightly colored dresses eking out a living selling bananas spread on a piece of cloth at the roadside, how many, I wonder, are the granddaughters or great-granddaughters of those who were marched to the mines in chains? One eyewitness account from 1914 describes mothers nursing babies as they carried loads of up to 66 pounds.
Some Kilo miners were forced to work for a decade or more, and released only when they supplied sons to take their places. Repeated uprisings against the forced-labor regime were brutally suppressed and thousands of deserters were recaptured and put to work again. The mines paid bonuses to overseers based on the amount of gold mined by the Africans under their control, whose workday rose to 12 hours during World War I. Discipline was enforced by armed mine police and by the chicotte, a whip of sun-dried hippopotamus hide with razor-sharp edges, whose blows were meticulously tabulated: Records from one group of northeastern Congo gold camps register 26,579 lashes applied to miners during the first half of 1920 alone. Around that year, the Belgians realized that the harshness of their regime was shrinking the population so rapidly that they would eventually have no labor supply left—you can actually find colonial officials saying this on paper. The system then became less severe as control of the northeastern gold mines passed from the colonial government to a private corporation. Gradually, requiring Africans to pay taxes (for which they had to earn money) replaced outright coercion as a means of turning subsistence farmers into miners or industrial workers. Forced labor, however, remained an element of the economy here, as elsewhere in colonial Africa, until the 1940s, and the whip lasted even longer.
Despite having no political rights, the Congolese, ironically, enjoyed their highest standard of living in the decade or so before the colony won its independence in 1960. Belgians invested heavily in the gold mines, and although the profits continued to flow back to Europe, the colonizers came to understand that this industry and others would produce more if workers were well fed, healthy, and literate. Not too literate, mind you: The colony had one of the best elementary education systems on the continent, but virtually no Africans were trained for management positions. Schools for whites and blacks were segregated, of course, and no black schools in the gold mining towns went beyond 8th grade. As we drive further along the road, past trees with high green bunches of papayas, we can see aging brick health clinics and primary schools built during the late colonial era.
Clockwise from top left: A miner in Mongbwalu; men panning for gold by hand; a former miner now suffering from tuberculosis; bringing up ore from a hand-dug tunnel. See the detailed slideshow here.
OTHER BUILDINGS, abandoned, tell the next phase of the story. With strong American encouragement, an army officer named Joseph Mobutu seized power in a military coup in 1965. For 32 years he maintained a repressive, disastrous dictatorship, changing his name to Mobutu Sese Seko and his country's to Zaire. Delighted to have an anti-communist ally who was friendly to American investors and helpful in covert military operations, the United States enthusiastically supported him, providing more than $1 billion in aid over the decades. President George H.W. Bush welcomed Mobutu to the White House as "one of our most valued friends." Sucking his country's economy dry, the dictator amassed a personal fortune estimated at $4 billion, spending it on assorted palaces, a huge yacht, two private ambulances, an airport near his Congo birthplace, Concorde rentals to pick him up there for trips to Europe, and elegant villas on the French Riviera and in other pleasure spots.
Plum executive positions like those at the Ituri mines Mobutu passed out to members of his clan and to political allies, who knew little about mining, pocketed profits, and let machinery wear out. By the mid-1970s, gold output was declining every year, and by the end of Mobutu's reign most industrial gold mining had come to a halt. One town we pass, formerly a depot for mining vehicles, is filled with empty workshops, garages, and jumbles of rusted old machinery. We spot the gray concrete bottom of what was once an Olympic-size swimming pool. The ladder into the pool and the iron framework of two high-dive platforms are still there. Some old men sitting in the shade tell us that this was a club for European skilled workers and company officials. The whites all left soon after independence, they say; the pool closed some years later.
Since Mobutu's overthrow and death in 1997, Congo has been in the grips of a fiendishly complex and brutal war whose exact toll no one knows. It may well be in the millions if you count those who died because fleeing their homes or living in packed, disease-ridden refugee camps cut them off from adequate food and medical care. Women and girls by at least the tens of thousands have been gang-raped by government soldiers and rebel militias, who have found this a chillingly effective method of terrorizing the civilian population of areas they occupy.
Refugees flee a warlord's attack on Ituri in 2003. Fighting in this West Virginia-size district, most of it driven by competition to control the goldfields, displaced more than half a million people and killed more than 60,000.
This has not been a civil war driven by ideology, but rather a multisided free-for-all driven by plunder. No fewer than two dozen armed groups signed the most recent of several shaky peace deals, for example. Among the warring parties have been the ineffectual national government, an array of feuding local ethnic warlords, and nearby African countries hungering for a share of Congo's great natural wealth. Here in Ituri, most of the combat has been between two shifting coalitions of militias, each of them intermittently supported by neighboring Rwanda or Uganda. Both countries have eagerly eyed Congo's gold—and its wealth of other metals necessary to make everything from computers to cell phones, including tin ore, coltan, and tungsten.
Today, with some help from a United Nations peacekeeping force, the northeastern goldfields are back under the Congolese national government's military control, but the evidence of fighting is everywhere you look. We pass the town of Bambu, once the administrative center for the network of Belgian mines in the region. A guidebook from some 60 years ago recommends the company-run hotel—now long defunct—to the white visitor. Palm trees shade the dirt streets; the firs that line one were obviously imported from Europe. A spacious white plaster and brick villa on a hilltop above town was once the home of the mines' Belgian managing director. When rival warlords and their Ugandan and Rwandan backers battled for control of the area, each side occupied it. "They always liked these buildings high on a hill, especially if the Belgians once had them," explains my traveling companion, Anneke Van Woudenberg. She is a longtime Congo specialist for Human Rights Watch and has written a report on exploitation by the mining industry in this region, The Curse of Gold, well known here in its French translation.