Our “need” for electronic devices makes all of us culpable for the tragedy in the Congo

Gerry Chidiac: How consumer demand for electronics is fuelling the conflict in CongoAs the world’s attention has focused on ending the slaughter of innocents in Gaza, we have neglected the part of the world where well over six million people have died and incalculable numbers of girls and women have been subjected to brutal sexual assault. The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are now raising their voices and refusing to be ignored.

My own silence is particularly troubling. Two of the happiest years of my life were spent in the DRC. Despite significant political and economic turmoil, the people I encountered could not have been kinder. They shared their food with me and welcomed me as one of their own. They tolerated my struggles with the local language and answered my silly questions about our cultural differences. I shared my knowledge about education, and they shared their wisdom about life.

My Congolese friends and coworkers often said something to me that I still find perplexing, “Tu n’es pas comme les autres blancs.” You’re not like other white people.

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I wish to avoid all temptations toward self-aggrandizement but also examine the approach of other white people in the DRC and whether their approach is connected to the nation’s abundant mineral wealth and the continuous cycle of violence and poverty faced by its population.

The first thing we need to admit is that foreigners never cared about the economic development of the DRC. First, they kidnapped and enslaved its people, and then King Leopold II of Belgium pillaged ivory and rubber, killing half the population in the process. Belgian colonizers continued pilfering even after their king was exposed. After political independence was granted to the DRC, Western corporate interests were implicated in the assassination of visionary and democratically elected leaders such as Patrice Lumumba and, in their stead, replaced them with violent and corruptible dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation. Today, Chinese companies are notably involved in the extraction of resources from the DRC.

Colonialism impacted all of Africa. In Rwanda, the Belgians set the Tutsi and Hutu people against one another in order to maintain control. This led to decades of violence between the two groups. When the French became involved and agreed to arm the Hutu, it resulted in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The French then created a corridor allowing Hutu perpetrators of genocide to escape to the neighbouring DRC (then known as Zaïre), and the Tutsi took control of Rwanda.

Rwandan-backed forces have been pursuing suspected perpetrators of genocide and exploiting the resources of the DRC ever since. Numerous other countries have also become involved. The result has been decades of death and suffering for the Congolese.

In many ways, the unrestricted support provided to Rwanda by Western nations closely mirrors the leeway granted to Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, overshadowing an acknowledgment of their own roles in the history of antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust. Just as Palestinians were not involved in the Holocaust, the majority of Congolese had nothing to do with the Rwandan Genocide and merely want to live in peace.

All of us contribute to the conflict in the DRC since a significant portion of the minerals required for our electronic devices are extracted by Congolese workers facing perilous and appalling conditions. The supply chains for these minerals are plagued with corruption and fuel the ongoing armed conflicts in the DRC and elsewhere. Electronics companies are aware of this reality, yet we, as consumers, choose to turn a blind eye, thus exacerbating the situation.

I still have contact with many of my friends and former colleagues in the DRC. They continue to do amazing work, trying to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of their society. They also collaborate effectively with people from elsewhere in the world who want to help solve the many problems that persist in the DRC.

The story of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not just a distant tragedy but a reflection of our collective choices and responsibilities. The silence and indifference of the international community, including our own, have consequences that extend far beyond our immediate surroundings.

Let’s not wait for history to judge us; instead, let’s write a new chapter, starting today.

Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages and genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.

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