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City activist decries mineral-linked genocide

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Evelyn Mayanja

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After the Holocaust, the world said "never again" to genocide. But it happened again in Rwanda in 1994 and it's still happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Evelyn Mayanja.

The African-born University of Manitoba researcher says the world is allowing mineral conflicts to claim thousands of lives after already killing an estimated 5.4 million.

The illicit trade in minerals used in communications devices -- such as coltan, gold, tungsten and tantalum -- is similar to the "blood diamonds" extracted in Sierra Leone and Liberia, said Mayanja, 39. The former development worker in Africa has lived in several countries torn apart by conflict. She came to Winnipeg in 2011 to work on a PhD in peace and conflict studies.

"Whenever I see a cellphone, I see more bloodshed," said Mayanja, who owns a cellphone. "It's a necessary evil."

An urgent global response to "conflict minerals" is needed to stop the genocide in Congo, where Mayanja has seen kids forced to work in mines, and rape and child soldiers used as weapons of war.

'Do I need a new phone, computer and tablet every year?'

-- Evelyn Mayanja

It can start with something as simple as shopping more carefully for new electronics or holding off on replacing them, she said.

"Do I need a new phone, computer and tablet every year?"

Consumers may not know where the minerals in their cellphones come from but they can check to see if its maker has done anything to ensure human rights are being respected at the source, she said.

Rather than having "apathy and indifference," shoppers can go online and do some research before making purchases, she said. Mayanja pointed to the website Raise Hope For Africa that has ranked electronics companies on conflict minerals.

People can lobby their MPs to demand the government intervene in the exportation of minerals extracted illegally from Congo, she said.

At least 10 Canadian mining companies are operating in the DRC, she said. One, Anvil Mining Ltd., faced a class-action suit for allegedly providing logistical support to the military that massacred 100 Congolese citizens in the port city of Kilwa in 2004.

The suit was filed by the Canadian Association Against Impunity, an organization representing survivors and families of victims of the massacre.

The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned a lower-court ruling in favour of the coalition, saying the complaint should be heard in Congo or Australia, where Anvil also operated. In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the appeal. As is traditional, the justices gave no reasons for their ruling.

People have been stripping the former Belgian colony of its resources -- and killing whoever gets in the way -- with impunity for years, said Mayanja. A lack of leadership in the DRC and apathy in the international community have allowed it to happen, she said.

"We need help."

Mayanja is hopeful. In 2012 she was asked to speak at schools during the Kony phenomenon. A 30-minute video called Invisible Children became one of the biggest viral sensations in Internet history, briefly turning little-known African warlord Joseph Kony into a household name among young North Americans.

"It stirred some interest," said Mayanja, who spoke to students about the atrocities committed by Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army and its use of child soldiers. For a time, an army of kids wrote letters, petitioned and lobbied governments to step up efforts to catch him. "Now it is dead," she said.

If all those young people grow up demanding devices that are free of conflict minerals, there is hope for Congo, said Mayanja, who plans to return to Africa to teach one day.

It all comes down to the golden rule, she said.

"If everyone imagines the children forced to work in mines and to fight were their own, could we let the atrocities continue?"

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 A15

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