Corona Crisis, Nature Strikes Back, Coltan Congo's Curse - Chapter 1
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 18
Chapter 2 26
Chapter 3 35
Chapter 4 46
Chapter 5 56
Chapter 6 64
Chapter 7 83
The Shit Hits the Fan
Chapter 8 96
The Real Game Begins
Chapter 9 105
Check. The King Needs to Make a Move
Chapter 10 120
Do Horses Jump?
Chapter 11 132
Check Again. The King Stumbles
Chapter 12 147
Anxious Moves of a King
Chapter 13 157
Moves of a Queen
Chapter 14 168
A Last Pawn
Chapter 15 177
Reshuffling the Game
Chapter 16 193
Chapter 17 202
Chapter 18 214
Chapter 19 227
Home at last
April 07, 1994: Kigali, Rwanda
‘Outpost to Eagle, Outpost to Eagle, come in’ The call was repeated. ‘Where are you?’
I grabbed my radio, pulled out its antenna and whispered, ‘Eagle here, we’ve almost found them, sir. At this very moment, we ‘re following a boy who knows where they are. I ‘ll call you again when we ‘re there. Oh, my God, you should see this! Blood ’s running down the streets into the gutters. There are bodies everywhere! Who’s doing this? Are ordinary people killing other ordinary people at random?’ I walked on with two other soldiers, following a ten-year-old who had run towards us and told us what had happened.
‘Mister, we have to be careful. Those butchers are everywhere . Let’s walk under the trees in the shade.’
Suddenly, a pickup truck filled with young men waving machetes, sped through the street. I recognised some of them as RAF*. We immediately took cover in the shadows. I heard their exhilarated voices, screams, singing and laughing as if they were going to a soccer match. Thankfully, they ignored us, so I assumed they had not noticed us. They drove on, following people who were running in front of them trying to find a place to hide. ‘Shit, they ‘re hunting down everyone and killing them on the spot,’ I concluded.
After every couple of yards, we had to step over the mutilated bodies of men, women and children, until we reached a building that looked like a storage facility.
‘Eagle to Outpost, Eagle to Outpost,’ the walkie-talkie creaked, and static noise followed.
‘Outpost here, go ahead.’
‘We ‘re entering a building which was probably used to store fertiliser or other chemicals. It smells terrible inside; we’re having to step over dead people here too.’
‘Keep us posted, Eagle.’
‘Correction, Outpost, we ‘re in some kind of clinic. Wait a minute, this must be the morgue, what a mess.! I can smell formaldehyde and chlorine, possibly mixed with human excrement.’
What we stumbled upon was downright dreadful. My stomach suddenly turned, and I vomited. We had been looking for my lost comrades for two days. And now our search had come to a terrifying end. They were all there, mutilated. They were undressed. It looked as if they had been killed by suffocation. Their genitals had been cut off and stuffed into their mouths. Also, I noticed that they had bullet wounds. I had read about this way of torture. It had been introduced in Africa about a hundred years previously by Belgian colonial agents who devised all kinds of torture to maximise rubber production with impunity. On the floor were ten of my mates, or at least what was left of them. ‘Are they all here?’ I asked. One of my people was counting them.
‘There are ten,’ was what he said. ‘Ten, but I can recognise only seven, three faces have been beaten to a pulp.’
‘Let’s get them out of here!’ I ordered. ‘Sergeant, you call and get a truck here as soon as you can. I ‘ll notify Outpost to tell them that we ‘ve found them.’
An hour later, we heard the engine of a UN truck in front of the building. The driver and four other soldiers came in and helped us carry the bodies. We laid them next to each other in the loading area. ‘Captain,’ urged the driver, ‘we had much difficulty in reaching you. Several times we had to step out to clear the road as dead people were blocking it. The RAF are setting up roadblocks everywhere and have started murdering people according to the ethnicity on their IDs. If your papers tell them you are a Tutsi, you die, but if you try to lie, you die as well. We only have about half an hour before nightfall, we must hurry.’
I thanked the boy. He looked at me as if he almost forgot something. ‘Wait! Please wait,’ he pleaded and ran away but came back a few minutes later with his mother and father. He pleaded, ‘Please help us, sir. We have no place to go. They are looking for us. They destroyed our house and we’ve been hiding in the basement.’
After all the bodies were loaded, I told them to come with us but that they had to sit with the dead in the back of the truck.
‘That is no problem, sir. We have been surrounded by thousands of them since this genocide started.’
His use of the word “genocide” told me that the boy was very smart. How smart, I was only to find out many years later.
We drove back to our compound in silence. Everyone was speechless, numb from what we were experiencing. No words could describe such an ordeal, the massacre, the sheer uselessness of it all. The driver frantically turned the wheels from left to right to avoid running over dead or dying people. A woman who could still walk, tried to jump on our truck, held fast for a few seconds but fell off. I wanted to stop and help her but that would have been suicide for all of us. At that moment I knew that her desperate expression of fear and my decision to drive on would haunt me for the rest of my days. What we experienced and saw that afternoon would be etched onto our brains forever. No one could escape such visions, erase such memories until only death would bring relief. We all knew that the atrocities had bound us together for all time. Whenever we saw each other in future, these shared horrors would immediately unite us. A wise man once said that in death, we will all be reunited.
I ‘m a commodity trader. I buy and sell commodities. You may ask yourself, what are commodities? Well, I can’t tell you exactly because I just understand that commodities can be anything you can buy and then sell again. Most people see oil as a commodity, or gold and silver. Yes, they ‘re right, but isn’t money a commodity? Money was supposed to be used to just facilitate trade, but now it has become a commodity too. Are steel or wood or pork bellies tradable? Yes. So my definition of a commodity is a product, a natural resource or a foodstuff that is traded internationally by traders worldwide. Traders don’t usually use the products themselves but just happen to know a manufacturer, a supplier such as a mining company, a government or other traders, who offer such a product to a potential buyer such as me. I can sell it on to someone I know or perhaps to a company that needs it to manufacture a product or build things. What I like about trading is that it pays me a very good salary and when I trade well, I am entitled to a fat bonus at the end of the year. With last year’s bonus, I bought myself a Maserati Ghibli and took my wife on a luxury cruise around the Caribbean. We stopped at Aruba where I bought her a necklace of Colombian emeralds, which in fact are also commodities. In my view, the circle is round: we live and die with commodities whether we like it or not. To answer Michael Sandel’s question, asked in his book What money can’t buy, whether everything is for sale, I’d answer “yes, everything is for sale, you bet your arse, if the price is right or the right amount of leverage is used.” I can buy anything and everything, and thus our world, planet or earth, whatever you’d like to call it, and everything that it holds, has become a commodity which is for sale to the highest bidder. Have you seen the 1976 film Network? In this classic movie, the great actor, Ned Beatty, holds a memorable monologue in which he states, ‘The world is a business. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immense, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichsmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels.’ That is exactly the status of our world today. He was quite right. Our world is a system. Everything is bought and sold, and subsequently owned or for want of a better word, “controlled” by someone. My employers are very rich; perhaps I should not say “rich” but the two partners who created our firm are very wealthy, they are billionaires. Imagine having a billion dollars in your bank account and you’d earn four percent interest each year. This would be forty million dollars annually, which should be ample to live a good life, shouldn’t it? But most billionaires like that would usually not settle for just a good life; no, they would only accept to live a “billionaire’s life”, which means they would not live in a house, but in a mansion with twenty-six bathrooms, five garages, a pool, fourteen guestrooms and a Jacuzzi, or they would live as lord of the manor in an ancient castle with preferably a moat to protect themselves from the plebs and the mob outside working as peasants in perpetual serfdom. This moat would not be enough to hide and protect their “organised” treasures consisting of the works of Monet, Gaugin, and Van Gogh, but also Ferraris or Bugattis. Their money would have to be spent on high-tech security systems, video cameras placed on every tower, hanging on each wall, an army of bodyguards, a helicopter and a pilot on 24-hour standby, just to name a few, because with extreme wealth comes extreme caution, even towards paranoia. Now you may ask yourself why all this cloak and dagger? Why this caution? Wouldn’t it be a lot better if, once you’ve made all that money, you could enjoy it and live an easy life? Well, that is not often the case because making so much money with commodity trading alone comes at a certain price and that price must be paid one way or the other. This price is equivalent to selling one’s soul to Mephistopheles. After you have sold it, all that is left to do is to pretend to feel at ease with these billions, knowing that somebody, somewhere, dug it out of the ground or paid for with his life. I am going to take you along into this world of coltan trading and show you how that game is played internationally. Who are the players? Who the winners and of course, who are the losers? I ‘ll tell you a story about “vested interests”. According to the Webster’s Dictionary, its definition is “a personal or private reason for wanting something to be done or to happen”. It is also explained as a personal stake or involvement in an undertaking, especially one with an expectation of financial gain. Such interests are prioritised above human affairs, leading to a stratified world from which our firm, Metalore, profits. I understand how the game is played. The only thing that minerals and morals have in common is that both words start with the letter M.
I ‘m here now as a trader but I came out of desperation. Lost in the shadow of time, I ‘m standing here to tell you about the abyss and the ultimate light. Somehow, I made it this far. Somehow, I returned from the deep and managed to crawl out. But at first, I got stuck halfway up the ladder. Shattered by life’s disappointments, I am now trying to overgrow pain and suffering. It’s the hardest thing to do because I cannot understand it. Wise men say you should accept everything you see as the inevitable cycle of life. But is man not given the gift of choice, inner growth, so that he may become a god in this life? I sure did try but somehow could not yet find the right balance. Some days I feel as if I’m close, but on other days I am as human as the next person and do not want to accept atrocities committed by mankind.
The things I’ve seen! Is life truly dualistic and cannot good exist without evil? I just will not accept that. This world was originally formed with a perfect balance to sustain life. It had to. It could not choose wrong from right, because it just is as it is, ever evolving, creative and adaptive…
‘Erik, I want you to fly to Congo next week. Do you have your passport, and are your vaccinations, such as yellow fever, hepatitis and typhoid, up to date?’ I looked behind me, turning away from my three computer screens and saw that John, my supervisor, was standing there and looked at me, impatiently awaiting an answer.
‘Lubumbashi? Congo?’ I asked.
‘Yes, Africa. But you ‘ll be flying to Kigali in Rwanda and drive or fly from there to Goma in Congo.’
‘Next week? Won’t I need a visa? I’d have to check the validity of my vaccinations. Just a minute, my booklet’s in my wallet.’ I turned around and found my backpack under my desk, opened the zip and found what I was looking for, my travel wallet which contained my passport, some credit cards and my international vaccination booklet. In the background, I heard the murmur of coffee trolleys being pushed around by catering staff and the mumbling on phones or in conversation of about 60 other traders, their operations assistants, secretaries, clerks, all minding their own business. They were interacting with the whole planet. People on the phone, people typing away on their keyboards or mobile phones, beeps from incoming emails, a shout here and there to demand attention from other desks, a usual Monday morning in our Geneva office at Rue du Rhône. Leafing through, I saw that my yellow fever vaccination had expired as well as my typhoid but that the rest was still useable. Immediately, I remembered where and when I’d had that last yellow fever shot. Many moons, 11 years and a lifetime ago. ‘How much time do I have to prepare?’ I asked the bulky man who was quite overweight and by the looks of him, had had a rough weekend. Red-faced with bloodshot eyes, I knew he liked his drink, something he inherited from his time in London, where many of the deals were made in pubs around lunch consisting not of food, but of liquid.
‘You have a meeting planned with our local agent next week, Wednesday,’ he said, ‘so just give me your passport and I ‘ll organise a rush visa service through CIBT* right away. They are already on their way to pick it up.’ I noticed his mobile phone in his right hand and, punching a number on it with his left, he made a call. ‘Yes, he can be there this afternoon. No, only yellow fever and typhoid. Two-thirty?’
He hung up and understanding what he just had arranged, I nodded “Okay”. ‘What ‘s the rush? Any trouble down there?’
‘Come with me, we have a meeting with our CEO right away. He’s asked me to pick you up. Can you leave your desk right now or are you in the middle of something important?’
‘Just let me quickly check my emails please,. Wait a sec.’
I spun round on my chair and scrolled though the last incoming mail, some from Australia and others from Central Africa, two from buyers in China and one for an order from New York. ‘No, nothing too urgent, I ‘ll see to them after our meeting. Let’s go.’
He walked in front of me, circumnavigating several desks, nodding good mornings here and there, until we reached the door towards the elevators. We stepped in and he pushed on the button for the 4th floor.
A woman, who smelled of gardenias and whom I had not seen before, entered at the 3rd floor.
John nodded in admiration standing just behind her and looked at her bottom which was quite intriguing. She also stepped out at Floor 4 but walked in another direction, drawing our naturally innate tendency to watch her moves until she vanished around a corner. ‘Come on, they are waiting for us.’
That afternoon, I went to get my yellow fever injection and the doctor gave me three typhoid capsules to swallow within six days, one each two days. The orders from upstairs had been very clear: ‘Solve the problem any way you can. Beg, borrow or steal, but don’t come back empty-handed.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ was all I could utter. ‘I ’ll handle it, sir. How much will I have access to?’
‘As much as you need, but you must repair the damage, sort out the various issues with our suppliers, grease some hands here and there, but save our logistics! We have contracts to fulfil. Without the product, we can’t deliver, and we’ll be sued for billions by our not-too-friendly clients, and by not too friendly, er, you know what I mean.’
‘Clear and understood, boss,’ John had added and whisked me away, out of the door, back into the elevator, downstairs to my place in the roundabout of trade. Me, a tiny particle in a vast universe of interrelations, kept alive by money and minerals. As blood was the liquid of life, money was the liquid of trade, and trade was the liquid of power.
But later that day, I was sweating more than usual, probably because of the vaccine, so I called John and asked him if I could leave a bit earlier as I wasn’t feeling too well.
‘Sure,’ he answered by phone, ‘just go and get better, say hi to Pauline for me’
I took a tram back to the Cornavin Station and waited at the platform for my train home to Nyon where I rented an apartment overlooking Lake Geneva. My wife also worked in Geneva, so I gave her a call whilst sitting on one of the steel benches near the tracks. ‘Hi, darling, I ‘m already on my way home because I don’t feel too well and need to lie down. Yes, I‘ll see you around seven this evening. I’ll prepare the dinner, so we can get an early night.’
Pauline worked as a project manager for Doctors Without Borders, better known as Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF in Geneva. Before that, she had worked all over Africa, but now she was enjoying a nine-to-five office position as she felt the impact of misery and suffering of innocent children on her own personality had become precarious.
Our different professions on opposite sides of a spectrum of interests, of course, triggered many lengthy discussions between her and me about the impact of international trade on the people of Africa who she and her organisation were keeping alive and my organisation was exploiting. But when I remarked that her organisation could only thrive because of the traders doing their jobs as they were doing, she looked at me, puzzled. I tried to explain to her that if social justice prevailed, there would be no need for traders, nor for humanitarian organisations, so we’d both be out of a job. ‘We usually find a justification for the things we do, don’t we?’ I told her. ‘We realise we don’t feel good with what we ‘re doing or not doing, creating this bad feeling inside ourselves which psychologists call dissonance. We always find arguments that justify our reasons for keeping on doing them, using excuses that ease our conscience.’ I ‘d become particularly good at that and sometimes regretted that I had become aware of it in the first place, but it was Pauline who had explained it to me. I remembered the day we met quite vividly. We were on a tram that was stuck in traffic on the way to Cornavin. She had accidently bumped into me, or rather, she almost fell over, as the tram suddenly braked, causing her to land right in my lap. My natural impulse was to save her from falling on the floor, so I grabbed her intuitively, held her tight for a minute and she just sat there on my lap for a few more moments, looking into my eyes, her deep bluish green eyes, deep waters, deep mysteries. I was hooked. She too had looked back at me and was not immediately standing up, perhaps involuntarily wanting to sit and rest a bit longer, drawn to me by something deeper than 3D. We had started talking and have been doing that ever since. We talked about more than trade or humanitarian care, we talked about everything, not just everything in a common understanding, but truly about the entire universe trying to answer the prime existential, philosophical question: Why are we here? but had never reached an agreement. Sometimes I wondered if such an agreement was needed at all, because our passion was, as far as I was concerned, perfect. Sure we worked in two opposite environments, but they were somehow interconnected and strangely interdependent. Was that perhaps our subconscious attraction? As if we had a natural bond, adjusting our own inner imbalance? I did not know. All I knew was that I loved her, and she loved me, and that is all that mattered to us really. On top of that, and that is probably even more important, we were best friends. I immediately dismissed that thought, that hint of a doubt because my train had arrived with creaking brakes, awaking me from my inner thoughts and sweet reminiscence.
When I was home about an hour later, I decided to take a shower to wash off the excessive sweat I endured. I put on a jogging suit which felt warm and comfy. I probably was affected by the vaccine but gradually felt better. I looked at my watch and saw it was nearing five o’clock, so I decided to see what was in the fridge to prepare a good meal and have it ready when Pauline got home around seven. I found some tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic and olive oil which I placed in the sink, took out a large cutting board, a sharp knife and just as I started cutting the onions, my phone rang. I quickly rinsed my hands under the tap and pushed “answer”.
‘Hi, it’s John.’
‘Hi man, what can I do for you?’
‘Are you feeling better, Erik?’
‘A lot, thanks,’ I answered.
‘What I’m calling you about is this. Didier, our big boss, just called me and he wants to see you first thing tomorrow, so I ‘m just calling you now to make sure you’ll be back in the office by then.’
‘Yeah, I wasn’t thinking at all of not coming, as I just said, I already feel a lot better. This fever attack is wearing off. Actually, I ‘m quite hungry and was just getting dinner ready when you called.’
‘Good man, see you tomorrow, bon appetit.’
He hung up and I continued with my cooking task, which, by the way, had become not just a hobby but a passion. I prided myself in my ability to, and truly believed that I did, make the best pasta in the world. Somehow, the diverse ways of making spaghetti, farfalle or rigatoni I learnt by experiment and constant improvement, always tasted better than the dozens of Italian restaurants Pauline and I had ever eaten at. She agreed, so she had even stopped ordering it when we ate out.
After I finished the chopping and the rest of the preparation, I sat down at the kitchen table and opened my laptop to check my messages. Some of them needed my immediate response, whilst others could wait until the next day. I walked to the stereo and pushed play. Moments later, Portishead with the song Roads started and as I hummed the lyrics, and I couldn’t help myself feeling this lump in my throat my stomach as if something bad was about to happen. Pauline always reminded me of such sensations and told me to pay attention to them. I remembered those lines from previous experiences quite some time ago. Pictures came back into my head, pictures of dead bodies, devastation and war. Yes, back then we had that war to fight, but no fight could ever have a winner, just losers, as too much damage was done. Too many tears and too much blood was spilled for which no amount of financial compensation would suffice. Life, love or compassion were not commodities which could be bought or sold. I understood that very well. Suffering could not be expressed in money; no amount would be enough to compensate for it. When those who were sacrificed were lost, they were lost forever. Sacrificed for what? Such flashbacks haunted me more often now than before. They were memories I had buried, hidden even from Pauline. She knew me well, but I had not been able, or for lack of better words, could not tell her my whole life story. Although she truly was my best friend, my lover and my woman, I could not face her and tell her everything. Not yet, perhaps one day.
She was going to be home around seven, so when I heard the door open, I put the pasta pan on the stove to boil the water. She stepped into the kitchen a minute later and gave me a warm hug and a passionate kiss. She sighed. ‘The train was so busy that I had to stand all the way. It looks like everyone moves around Geneva constantly.’
She smelled nice, although I scented a trace of perspiration, but before I could say anything, she asked, ‘Do I have time to take a quick shower? I stink.’
‘Sure, dinner will be about fifteen minutes. Can I pour you a glass of wine?’
‘Pleaassse,’ she smiled, ‘I’ll drink it when I smell a bit better, just give me a few minutes?’
Our embrace ended, she turned around and I, as always, enjoyed the view of her walking away from me. I found a bottle of cooled Verdicchio in the fridge and opened it. The music had stopped. I saw my BlackBerry LED flickering, so I picked it up and read my messages. One message was sent by the Visa service CIBT about my applications for Rwanda and Congo. Also, my itinerary was mailed to me by my assistant, Mary. I was flying to Kigali and would then be driven to Goma on the Congolese border by our local agent. I had made that trip several times, so I was used to it. Kigali was quite safe, but the closer one got to the mining district, the trickier it could become. Our company’s safety and security protocol was very strict, so I didn’t have to worry. Usually someone would fetch me from the airport, guide me through immigration and customs, take care of my luggage and accompany me all the way to a waiting car. A driver and an armed security officer, former Special Forces, in plain clothes, plus an extra car behind us would be following with two extra agents, also armed and in constant touch with each other by radio.
The water was boiling so I took some spaghetti from a box and let it slide into the salted water. I sautéed the ingredients for the sauce in olive oil and let it simmer slowly, so it would be ready at the same time as the pasta.
Pauline had washed her hair and with one towel on her head and another towel around her body, joined me in the kitchen where I handed her a glass of wine. She drank and sighed, ‘Gosh, I needed that, thanks darling. How was your day?’
I stirred through the sauce and answered, ‘Fine. I guess I felt feverish from that shot.’
‘So, you’re off to Africa again? Where to now?’
‘Oh, the usual friendly touristic sites; Rwanda and DRC.’
She smiled and took another sip. She had taken one of the stools that we used to sit on whilst eating from our heightened kitchen table, right out of an Ikea brochure.
‘I do actually believe it is quieter now than last year. Our mission there reports that there are fewer emergencies.’
‘Are you sure they ‘re taking everyone to your hospital?’
‘Probably not, but we keep count and it seems a bit more peaceful down there.’
I took a large gulp from my glass, took two plates from a cupboard and the necessary utensils out of a drawer, and placed them on the table where she sat. ‘Dinner in two minutes.’
‘Great, I ‘m starving.’
This was always one of our favourite moments, me cooking and stirring, and she just sitting there, being beautiful, sipping wine and watching me. Every evening when we got home, we talked about our days in the office, the people we saw, people we liked or disliked, what we had for lunch and discussed the world in general. Probably the best thing she gave me was her interest in me, not for what I took home in pay each month, but her genuine interest in who I was, how I thought, how I felt. And it was mutual. I loved her because she was so committed to justice. I treasured her because of her compassion. I adored her because…well, because , she listened, truly listened to me. And I told her perhaps not everything but most of it, and that was already something.
I stirred the sauce through the spaghetti and we started eating. ‘Mmm,’ I heard, ‘very good, darling.’
I nodded. It did taste rather good.
‘And that is why we should never order pasta in a restaurant anymore,’ she added with her mouth still half full. ‘You make the best spaghetti.’
‘Thank you, dear, I’m afraid that you could be right on that observation.’
She laughed and blew me a kiss and changed the subject. ‘Has your fever dropped? You look quite pale.’
‘I think so. I do feel better and my appetite confirms that I ‘m fine.’
After we finished our dinner, she washed the pans and dishes and I did the drying. These little moments of togetherness were becoming more and more important. I started to notice them and to cherish them, realising that I was and always had been a lucky son of a bitch.
‘Do you want to watch the news?’ she asked.
‘Sure, let’s do that. What about an early night?’ I hinted while I touched her thigh when her towel became loose.
‘Good plan, I am exhausted. I need my eight hours, but ten is also very tempting.’
‘Who said anything about sleeping?’
She laughed and hugged me.
‘Are you sure you ‘re well enough?’
‘Well enough? For what?’
Her eyes betrayed her. ‘Let me get into my pyjamas first. I’ll be right back.’
I walked to our living room and switched on the TV and was joined a couple of minutes later on our couch by a woman whose idea of pyjamas were fantasies obtained from a famous shop in Geneva called Agent Provocateur. I don’t believe to have seen the news that evening, at least I don’t remember, or what the weather would be like tomorrow. Only that our “now” was timeless.