The Digital Journalist

by Spencer Platt

May 2006

To say that nothing can prepare one for the misery that awaits in the eastern Congolese city of Mongbwalu is a lie. For its plights and desolation have been exposed and offered up to the world on numerous occasions. The images of thousands of both the young and old scrapping away at the earth in a desperate search for flakes of gold have been shown, but like so much of what comes out of the Democratic Republic of Congo, these exposures, these depictions of a small hell on earth, are too often met with a collective shrug.

First some facts:

• An estimated 1,200 people die every day in Congo from war-related disease and hunger. That is close to 3.9 million since 1998.

• Since the end of 2005, nearly 1.7 million people have been displaced in Democratic Republic of Congo.

• There are an estimated 40,000 (conservative estimate) victims of rape and gender-based violence in Congo.

• There are over 33,000 child soldiers currently active in Democratic Republic of Congo.

• Democratic Republic of Congo is the size of Western Europe and has virtually no paved roads.

• There are 18 natural resources motivating the fighting in Congo, including gold, copper, gas, diamonds and ore.

A boy rests next to his battered bicycle after riding nearly 50 miles along dirt roads in the gold mining town of Mongbwalu, Congo. March 29, 2006.

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
I had asked my editors to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to do a report on the state of the country as it struggles to prepare for historic presidential elections later this summer. I had been to the Congo once before, in 2003, but due to the intensity of the fighting, was unable to leave the eastern town of Bunia. Since the official ending of civil war in 2003 and the instillation of a transitional government, the country continues to be beset by fighting which is now grimly referred to as "Africa's World War" due to the number of militias and other foreign armies freely roaming the countryside.

While it is difficult to pinpoint a front line, bestow blame or articulate a solution to this conflict, what is happening in Congo is certainly war. In all honesty, I have heard more gunshots near my home in Brooklyn, New York, than I did in nearly a month in Congo. But war is often at its most pernicious when elusive and intangible. The horrors currently unfolding in Congo happen too often outside of the camera's sight; they slip like shadows across a wall that will be dismantled at dawn.

I had come to Mongbwalu to do a report on the gold mining activities in the town, one of numerous stories I pursued in Congo and felt was integral to the country’s state of crisis. Located in the violence-prone east of Congo and some 50 miles from the regional capital of Bunia, Mongbwalu should be reached by a short ride in a car. However, the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country roughly the size of Western Europe, has virtually no paved roads. That car trip ride becomes a 7- to 10-hour journey on a gnarled and rutted path replete with rebels, displaced families and hawkers of all varieties, in effect, isolating communities and towns throughout the country. The volatile east of the country, which is situated hundreds of miles from the capital, Kinshasa, has been the focal point of continued violence. Numerous militias and warlords have vied for control of the mineral rich eastern Congo for decades, creating instability and continued bloodshed.

Men pass buckets of dirt which they will sift through while looking for gold in Mongbwalu, Congo. Thousands of Congolese scrape together meager livings from mining. Gold and other mineral deposits, which are numerous in the volatile north-east of the country, have become a catalyst to much of the conflict in Congo. March 27, 2006.

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Being a Western journalist in a country with shamefully few journalists, I was afforded the luxury of a U.N. helicopter ride that lasted all of 15 minutes. Upon arriving in town, I glimpsed a boy head-to-toe in mud and leaning on his battered Chinese bicycle. Through my interpreter, Robert, it was revealed that he had just made the exact same journey as I had; it had taken him two days.

The road into Mongbwalu is best navigated, like so much of Congo, on a motorcycle. Not only does this let one maneuver the streets, but it offers a fervent introduction to the smells, sounds and life of this vivid country. Mining is the trade of this town and has been for decades. The rusting shacks along the street that serve as shops display a colorful mix of mining buckets, rubber boots and shovels. After negotiating a "fee" with a dizzying number of local elders in order to operate as a journalist in the area, I head up the road to one of numerous mines on the outskirts of town.

FARDC soldiers, the national army of the Democratic Republic of Congo, participate in training exercises on March 23, 2006 in Bunia, Congo. The FARDC have been accused of robbing, raping and looting in towns and villages all across Congo. After a mutiny last month against the United Nations peacekeepers they were patrolling with, the FARDC are being retrained with the assistance of the U.N.

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
What stands out immediately is the sound, or lack of it. Hundreds of men and boys form haphazard lines that descend deep into the mine pit. For such a Dickensian panorama, it is the hushed voices and muffled sounds of picks and shovels scrapping rocks that strike me. Children work beside grown men who toil in murky waist-deep pools. Even the novelty of a visiting photographer fails to halt this charge for gold. An acknowledged glance, a request for a cigarette is all that my presence elicits. This area in Africa’s heartland is home to some of the world’s biggest gold deposits. From dawn to dusk, thousands of buckets of muck are brought up from the mine and carefully sifted for gold flakes. While the miners are not getting rich from the work, some make enough money to pay for basic necessities. What gold is found will eventually find its way, by dubious methods, to Uganda. From there, the gold will travel to global markets in Europe and beyond. Human Rights Watch has recently released a damning exposÉ on gold mining in the Congo, but like so much in this region, its findings will likely do little to change the realities for these exploited people.

Instead of casualties mounting in a barrage of shells, the swelling number of deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo is often less dramatic. Maybe that helps explain why in the near month I was there, traveling to numerous cities and towns, I only encountered one other group of reporters, a Sky Television crew there for a week. Maybe it is that when death comes by malnutrition in a sordid hospital ward at 2:16 a.m. in a small and inaccessible village, it escapes notice. When relatives and community members march the simple wooden casket down the dirt road the following morning and place the body in an unmarked grave, it escapes notice. When a child shivers in the tropical heat and slowly dies from treatable tetanus, it escapes notice. But when these tragedies are repeated 1,099 times a day, it really shouldn't escape notice.

© Spencer Platt

Spencer Platt is from Westport, Connecticut. After graduating from Clark University in 1994 with a degree in English, he commenced a career in photojournalism with an internship at the Troy Daily News. Spencer worked at numerous newspapers on the East Coast before joining Getty Images in 2000 as a staff photographer. Besides many domestic stories, Spencer has covered such international assignments as Iraq, Liberia, the Congo, Albania and most recently the tsunami in Southeast Asia. Spencer lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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