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Brooklyn, New York (VICE.COM) -- Walking through the jungle in the dead of night with a group of Rwandan rebels best known for their expertise at rape and murder wasn't exactly what we had planned for our first trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. All we wanted was to make a little film about the controversy surrounding the so-called conflict minerals that make our cell phones work, drop a couple Conrad references, and drink a Primus. Just one Primus.
A week earlier, our team landed at N'Djili International Airport in the capital of Kinshasa, formerly Leopoldville. The place looks like it hasn't had a scrub since Muhammad Ali dropped by for the Rumble in the Jungle in the early 1970s. After having our yellow-fever cards checked for the first time in our well-traveled lives, we ran a gauntlet of sweaty police officers and other officials -- each with his own laundry list of infractions that we had apparently already committed. In an amazing stroke of luck, they were willing to overlook all these violations for a small fine, payable in person, to them.
We'd come to Congo to try to find out more about the developed world's thirst for coltan, cassiterite, and the other colorfully named minerals that make the electronics industry go round. These are part of a group of natural resources that have been dubbed "conflict minerals" because of the alphabet soup of armed groups (FARDC, CNDP, FDLR, PARECO, etc.) who have found them a very portable and highly profitable way to fund their activities -- which mostly consist of killing people. Since 1996, these guerrilla insurgencies have led to the deaths of more than 5 million people, and in one 12-month period, the rape of approximately 400,000 women.
We knew very little about Congo before we came, but the one thing that had been drilled into our heads was "do not fly on Congolese airlines." Conventional wisdom says that between the beat-up Russian planes and their drunken Russian pilots, and the occasional crocodile in the overhead, if you fly a Congolese airline -- you will die. But what else could we do? Walk? This is a country the size of Western Europe, with the infrastructure of rural West Virginia.
As it turned out, that flight would be the most comfortable experience of the days that followed.