A piece of Congo in my pocket

By Michael Benner, September 2016

The former child soldier Junior Nzita Nsuami has become an ambassador against war.

Photos: © Junior Nzita Nsuami

Each one of us has a piece of Congo in their pocket, said Junior Nzita, the former Congolese child soldier who spoke about his life in our school. He said it not as an accusation but in a friendly informative way, yet nevertheless in the slight hope that this sentence might lead to something. The piece of Congo can be found in our mobile phones, our iPhones. It is the rare metallic ore coltan.

We can live with that: everything we consume comes from somewhere and was produced by someone. Nothing unusual about that. Responsibility rests with the manufacturers and legislators. How is that connected with us? We are, after all, only the end users.

Yes, says Junior Nzita, but the coltan which is necessary for making our mobile phones comes from the eastern Congo and this has descended into civil war because the fight for these rare raw materials which are much in demand has led to war of all against all. And in this war easily led and cheap child soldiers are used. And perhaps a troop of child soldiers has also secured the mine from which the coltan in my mobile phone comes.

Perhaps these child soldiers even used German arms or were killed by German arms and I, involuntarily of course, have benefitted from the taxes which the German arms manufacturers paid to the state. According to the arms exports report, Germany in 2010 exported arms to the value of 2.6 billion dollars. This puts Germany in third place as an arms exporter behind the USA and Russia. Perhaps a refugee whom we are trying to help had to flee from German weapons. Yes, but I really can’t be held responsible for that.

It is most probably the case that no parent or teacher has shares in a German arms corporation to benefit from the profits of the arms industry. But what are the banks and pension funds doing with the money we have deposited with them in the expectation that they should please ensure that it accrues significantly so that we can spend a comfortable retirement? They invest it to obtain the maximum yield because that is what we expect as customers and what the shareholders demand.

Did we know nothing about it?

If our children one day ask: “Didn’t you know any of these things, the coltan, the child soldiers and the German arms?”, we cannot say that we knew nothing about it. All of us are more deeply involved in the great social and ecological problems of our world than we are (willing to be) aware of in our everyday lives.

If the Congo was situated in Berlin, most of us would be up in arms about it, as we were up in arms when women were groped on New Year’s Eve in front of Cologne central station – and rightly so. The system works because the creation of “added value” through the globally enmeshed investments of capital has become such an anonymous process. As a result the problems of the world move far away from the only place in the world where they could be successfully worked on and resolved: from ourselves as feeling thinking and acting human beings.

David against Goliath

Tim and Kilian from class 11 wrote an article for the Maerker, the newspaper of our school in Berlin. Their aim was to reduce the number of purchases of new mobile phones and iPhones, and thus the mining of coltan, by opening a mobile phone exchange. Anyone can cheaply acquire a mobile phone there, provided they are satisfied with the second most fashionable model – something that we can probably manage quite easily if we think of the dying child soldiers.

One who survived is Junior Nzita. He helped us to take action. Junior Nzita visited our school and the pupils in middle and upper school listened to him with concentration for two hours.

Junior Nzita’s school was attacked by soldiers, the teachers were killed and the children loaded into closed trucks so that they would not see where they were being taken. Then “work” started after a short “training” period. Junior Nzita was twelve. He quickly understood that one was killed if one refused to do the “work”, which consisted of killing others. Junior Nzita became a successful child soldier.

He reported: “In my country about 30,000 child soldiers have been deployed in the civil wars of the last decades. They are cheaper and easier to manage than adult soldiers and are very suitable as cannon fodder. When we were subsequently sent into the mine fields in Angola only every tenth one of us returned.

“At the start of training you are sent into your own village to kill friends and relatives there. After that there is no way back. Even if you were to succeed in escaping from the camp – where are you going to go? I  know of many child soldiers who survived the war but not the time after it because the people in their village took revenge on them.”

Is he filled with hate? Can he forgive? An extremely important question for the pupils. Everyone in the room would have understood if Junior Nzita had said that he would never be able to forgive those who destroyed his childhood. But he can. How that is possible remains a riddle in the room which everyone takes home with them. It gives strength that Junior Nzita says he has managed it because otherwise the spiral of violence would continue without end.

What is Junior Nzita doing today? He is the UN special ambassador against child soldiers. He works to outlaw the use of children in armed conflicts, has addressed the UN Security Council, is in contact with Ban Ki-Moon and was the main speaker before the EU Parliament on this subject. In 2010 he founded the organisation “Paix pour l’enfance” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to rescue children who have become orphans through acts of war and undertake trauma work with them. That has been a success. After all, he is an expert. Since 2012 he has supported many campaigns in Africa and Europe as part of the UN “Enfant, pas soldat” campaign.

Junior Nzita is much in demand because he makes a good poster boy. But he can see through it and has refused lucrative offers. Junior Nzita has backbone – instead of being a broken person. That helps us, too, to stand upright. When he goes after three events on this day, he has found friends. That is precisely what he wants to achieve: thoughtful, strengthened pupils.

Junior Nzita came to us because of Yannick from class 8. Yannick had seen an exhibition about “Child soldiers in Central Africa” as a nine-year-old. Since then the subject has not let him go. Now it has become the subject of his project for the year. We planned the event with Junior Nzita together.

The visit has turned into an impulse and a special edition of the Maerker was produced. It can be ordered in paper form or as a file from Kerstin Thiele (Thiele(at)waldorfschule-mv.de

About the author: Michael Benner teaches history, social studies and geography at the Märkisches Viertel Free Waldorf School in Berlin and founded the student company Steinbrücke GbR which trades in precious stones.

www.steinbruecke.de | www.sinnestäuschung-gibt-es-nicht.de

Note: Junior Nzita Nsuami wrote the book Wenn ich mein Leben als Kindersoldat erzählen könnte which can be ordered from Deutscher Versöhnungsbund: www.versoehnungsbund.de/buch/1503, ISBN: 978-3-906821-01-6


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