CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips reports the bloody war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is being fought — at least in part — over the mud being dug up in mines here. It is mud that contains a mineral essential for the computer chips that power game consoles and high-tech devices.
The mineral is called Colombite-Tantalite — Col-Tan for short.
So high is the demand for Col-Tan that by the time it's processed and exported — often smuggled out of the Congo — its price has reached $200,000 a pound, a 50-fold increase over its value when first extracted. For this country's dirt-poor people, dirt has become the stuff to die for.
A rebel army commander, whose unit controls this part of the Congo, admits Col-Tan pays the bills.
"Our revenue per month out of Col-Tan was $1 million per month," said Adolphe Onusumba, president of the Rally for Congolese Democracy
The rebels are fighting the country's current leader, Joseph Kabilla, who took over earlier this year when his father, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated.
Laurent Kabila came to power in 1997 when, with the help of Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and other regional countries, he won a long civil war against the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Shortly after Kabila took charge and changed the country's name from Zaire to DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda invaded the country to try to overthrow their former ally.
Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, along with dissident Congolese military men and rebel groups, claimed that Kabila was a poor manager, a dictator, and had failed to stop Hutu bands based in DRC from raiding the other countries. Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia also joined the war, on Kabila's side.
The sides signed a peace accord in 1999, but fighting has raged on. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 1.3 million people in the country of 51.9 million have been displaced by the fighting.
While no solid figures are available, the International Rescue Committee in a mortality study conducted this year estimated that 2.5 million more deaths occurred in Congo since the start of the war than would normally have been expected.
Whatever its underlying causes, the conflict has drawn in armies interested in loot as much as politics. The armies scoop up the wealth lying in the ground.
In April, a United Nations Security Council panel reported that "Illegal exploitation of the mineral and forest resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo is taking place at an alarming rate."
The countries named in the report denied its findings. But while Col-Tan may not have started this war, it's certainly helped to keep it going. Rwanda's take from Col-Tan is estimated at three times its annual military budget.
"For them they don't even care if their people die in Congo because they have got their own agenda," said Onusumba. He said the agenda was to get rich.
The mineral in the mud has taken a nasty little war in the African wilderness and turned it into a profitable business affecting a high-tech industry in a world far away.
In a region where the economy has been destroyed by years of war, and where farms have been decimated and livestock stolen by armies and militias, the $10 or so a pound the local miners can earn for Col-Tan is real money. Most of them haven't a clue what the mud is used for.
Asked why he had come to the mine, a man named Francois said, "I'm here because I need the money to return at school."
Forces in the DRC recently began to pull back from the front lines in an effort to abide by the 1999 cease-fire agreement. But as long as there's a market and there is money to be made, the trade and the war it's paying for will be difficult to stop.
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