June 17, 2010
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1,500 people die each day in a decade-long war subsidized by the country's mineral deposits. Most die from pneumonia, malnutrition, malaria and diarrhea, all normally treatable if not for the war. Nearly half of those who die each day are children.
Some of those minerals find their way into Americans' cell phones and beer cans.
The Congo and rebel groups import guns with money made from these minerals. Legislation is pending that would track these so-called conflict minerals, but critics point out that the neighboring countries of Uganda and Rwanda steal the Congo's minerals as well. Any good guys are hard to identify.
Earlier this week a group of five young bicyclists rolled through Cape Girardeau on their way from the East Coast to Venice Beach, Calif. Their purpose was to make people aware of the tragedy occurring in the Congo, a country few of us could locate on a map of Africa.
The young men belong to an organization called Falling Whistles. It's named for Congolese children who are too small to carry a rifle. The rebels put them on the front lines with only a whistle they are to blow when they see government troops.
"Their sole duty is to make enough noise to scare the enemy and then to receive -- with their bodies -- the first round of bullets," writes Sean Carasso, an American who was in the Congo in 2007.
"Lines of boys fall as nothing more than a temporary barricade," Carasso wrote in the journal entry that spawned Falling Whistles. "Those who try to flee are shot at from behind. The soldiers call it 'encouragement' to be brave. Without a gun to protect themselves, the smallest boys are placed between the crossfire of two armies -- forces fighting for reasons far beyond their ability to understand."
Falling Whistles sells whistles to raise money to help children whose lives have been wracked by war.
Five teenage boys imprisoned in one of the Congo military camps told Carasso the story of these boys with whistles. When they weren't shooting at the government troops, the rebels forced Busco, Bahati, Serungendo, Claude and Sadiki to spend most of their days in a deep ditch with 300 others, living in their own excrement and eating rotten food.
They escaped, but the government soldiers who found them treated the teens not much better, beating them and forcing them to stand up through the night. Carasso enlisted the help of UNICEF to free them.
Wars begin with words. Recently I was riding in the back of a pickup with a party of men I didn't know. One of them said something uncomplimentary about President Obama, and others joined in. "You don't want to say the words Obama and assassination in the same sentence," one joked.
"No, that would be racist," another added.
"He should be taken out and shot for some of the things he's done," a third man said.
I turned my back to them, ashamed and angered that grown men thought such words could pass for public discussion. I felt worst of all for the young girl riding in the pickup with us. What must she think of adults that we can speak of those we disagree with as mortal enemies?
Children have no business with war, whether fought with bullets or words.
Carasso wrote that one of the rescued boys, a Rwandan, said he'd actually fought against the rebel army before being captured and forced to fight for them. Carasso asked if that made him and the other boys enemies. "We are only boys," the Rwandan said. "How can we be enemies?"
Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.