The first child soldier pops out of the bush clutching an AK-47 assault rifle in one hand and a handful of fresh marijuana buds in the other. The kid, probably 14 or 15, has this big, goofy, mischievous grin on his face, like he’s just stolen something—which he probably has—and he’s wearing a ladies’ wig with fake braids dangling down to his shoulders. Within seconds his posse materializes from the thick, green leaves all around us, about ten other heavily armed youngsters dressed in ratty camouflage and filthy T-shirts, dropping down from the sides of the jungle and blocking the red dirt road in front of us. Our little Toyota truck is suddenly swarmed and immobilized by a four-and-a-half-foot-tall army.
This is on the road to Bavi, a rebel-controlled gold mine on the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s wild eastern edge. Congo is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country and one of its richest on paper, with an embarrassment of diamonds, gold, cobalt, copper, tin, tantalum, you name it—trillions’ worth of natural resources. But because of never ending war, it is one of the poorest and most traumatized nations in the world. It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand that militia-controlled mines in eastern Congo have been feeding raw materials into the world’s biggest electronics and jewelry companies and at the same time feeding chaos. Turns out your laptop—or camera or gaming system or gold necklace—may have a smidgen of Congo’s pain somewhere in it.
The mine in the Bavi area is a perfect example. It’s controlled by a potbellied warlord called Cobra Matata, though “controlled” may be a strong word. There are no discernible front lines out here marking where government rule definitively ends and Cobra’s territory definitively begins, no opposing troops hunkered down in trenches or foxholes eyeballing each other through their scopes. Instead there are just messy, blurry degrees of influence, often very marginal influence, with a few Congolese government guys lounging under a mango tree in one place, and maybe two miles down the road a few of Cobra’s child soldiers smoking pot, and nothing in between but big, vacant, sparkling green wilderness.