Walikale is one of those towns you won’t spot from the window of a plane.
Squeezed between rolling carpets of treetops, you might just detect a brown blot on a green canvas if you strain your eyes hard enough.
But beneath the mist and clouds, and among the rough jungle of towering trees, swamps, rivers and waterfalls, lies El Dorado incarnate: the district of cursed gold.
The territory of Walikale – a series of tropical forests, farmland, fresh water eco-systems and more than 100 villages – encapsulates the broader story of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North Kivu province.
Walikale is important it was reported in 2010, that 40 per cent of the entire revenue of North Kivu came from the Bisle tin mine that is located there.
But Walikale is not entirely unique.
It is but one chapter in a larger narrative, in which the ordinary residents of a region considered to contain some of the biggest untapped reserves of mineral resources in the world remain famished, cursed by the wealth of their surroundings.
The next stop
Walikale is so remote, and the roads so bad, that it can take up to a week to get there by car, even though it is only a 45-minute flight from Goma, the capital of North Kivu.
Not that the territory has an airport – planes land on a local road, while UN helicopters use a football field to transport medical supplies, people, and curry powder for a garrison of Indian soldiers, known as the ‘Fab fourteenth’ living on a hill not far from the landing pad.
Indian troops make up most of the UN peacekeepers deployed to the DRC.
At the heart of the district of Walikale is the town of the same name – a hamlet of thatched-roofed mud huts and a red-face-bricked school ,flanked by a seemingly misplaced church, with its towering façade and tin top dwarfing the surrounding settlement.
The town centre, marked by an abandoned military truck, a flat top trailer and an overweight pygmy obelisk that locals refer to as the ‘Walikale monument’ is literally a half- a-kilometre-long hardened track.
Outside their huts, women sit on blocks of cement and breastfeed their infants while talking to neighbours. Along the road, young girls sell fruit from small bowls, while boys sell fuel in plastic bottles.
The sound of children singing hymns drifts through the broken windows of the school’s classrooms.
In the market adjacent to the main street, about 200 or so vendors sell dried fish, freshly cut beef, nuts and wild animal meat brought in from villages across the region.
The charred hands of baby monkeys sit among other produce on the market stalls.
If Goma is the last outpost – where businessmen meet in colonial era-styled hotels to make exchanges worth packets of gold, or to arrange for smugglers to slip across Lake Kivu, then Walikale might just be their next stop.
An infamous hell
For the international media, the Walikale district is famed for three things: the armed groups that operate in its forests its unsurpassed deposits of minerals, including cassiterite (ore used to make tin), gold, diamonds and colten (metallic ore used in the tiny circuit boards of laptops and mobile phones) and an incident of mass rape – involving about 387 victims – that took place last year.
Ntabo Nteberi Sheka, a rebel leader and politician, is accused of being one of the directors of the rape and pillage of a series of villages in the territory.
Mass rape is used as a weapon of war in the DRC – with each generation indoctrinated into believing in its power to cultivate a sense of invincibility.
When villages are raided, and their young boys taken to become fighters, they too are taught to use this weapon.
Sheka shadows over the district’s forests in a way only a zealous rebel leader might: with local brew and an iron fist.
According to some insiders, nothing gets out of Walikale without Sheka allowing it.
Of course, today Sheka is in the spotlight, but there are long lines of rebels who have operated and continue to operate in the jungles, despite the presence of UN peacekeeping troops.
Experts working in the region, and the locals tormented by it, speak of the place with a mixture of distress and childlike enthusiasm.
It isn’t hard to understand why – it is a place that fascinates and repulses in equal measure.
The minerals in North Kivu, particularly in a remote haven like Walikale, where rebels and government forces are able to act with impunity, are an exacerbating factor in the continued insecurity that remains in the east.
The actors who have profited greatly from the mines refuse to leave, and when they do, have continued, in one form or another, to operate by proxy in the region.
While the failure of Joseph Kabila, the incumbent president, to build infrastructure and development has been the opposition’s main rallying cry during election campaigning, many in the east of the country are more concerned by their president’s perceived tacit business relations with Rwanda, which they believe allows places like Walikale to be plundered.
Meanwhile, the instability in the region and the presence of foreign militias gives Kabila’s foreign backers a reason to remain.
The triumph of greed
Word on the street is that Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, is nothing without North Kivu that just about everyone in the higher echelons of the political order are involved in the mining and export of minerals in the region, allowing a rebel like Sheka to exist, and even thrive.
Kabila banned the export of minerals for six months – from September 2010 to March 2011 – in an apparent attempt to clean up the industry.
But human rights observers say the ban only served to further militarise the illegal smuggling of minerals and did little to stave off the armed groups, while there has also been a failure to create programmes to regulate the industry.
Neither did it advance solutions to the continued pillage of the region’s forests and bio-diversity that has been a trend since King Leopold’s Free Congo State ravaged entire areas in the hunt for rubber in the 1890s.
Meanwhile, the Dodd-Frank law imposed by the US – designed to create transparency and end the trade in blood-minerals through the forced certification of minerals – only created new problems.
A weak administration, malnourished police force and ready-made black market meant that in a country unable to handle the certification process, official exports dried up, allowing smuggling to thrive.
In 2011, exports of cassiterite were down by 90 per cent.
But with US companies shunning the DRC, the leading buyer of these minerals, illicit or not, is none other than China.
The DRC is a complex web of interspersed politics, latent corruption, violence and geographical obscurity that often allows temporary greed to triumph over the aspirations of the ordinary.
The residents of Walikale may be impoverished, but human dignity is in no shortage here.
You see it in their daily struggles to cultivate their own gardens, build a life that is outside the insatiable search for quick riches, and in the dreams they have for their children.
But these efforts do not always translate into reality, particularly when the systematic tendency of those in power to manipulate a fragmented society into self-immolating acts of horror, remains.