November 27, 2016
MASISI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Janvier Mugisho was a street vendor in Bagira, a densely populated neighborhood known locally as Baghdad, in Bukavu, the capital of the South Kivu province, when he decided to head north to the mines.
He left behind a wife and two young daughters, largely because he’d heard tales of miners who found great wealth in Rubaya, an area northwest of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.
The journey was difficult. First, he took a boat from Kabare to Goma for the overnight journey across Lake Kivu, then a bus from Goma to Masisi. It was only a few days before he found a job in one of the area’s many coltan and cassiterite mines, joining a group of 30 other miners who worked underground six days a week. The minerals they sought are used to make cellphones, computers and other high-tech tools.
The work was difficult, but Mugisho was able to send money home to his family. Eight hours underground in search of the minerals earned him 4,000 Congolese francs ($4).
When he visited his family after a year, he arrived with $500 in his pocket.
“It was a great day when he arrived home,” says his wife, 32-year-old Faida Maliyamungu. “I cooked for him his favorite food … fufu and chicken. Children were happy to see their father, but I was the happiest.”
The family decided to buy land and planned to build a home once he returned for good.
“Our life was about change. We were happy and full of hope,” she says.
Mugisho was dead a few weeks later.
In her anguish, Maliyamungu tried to file a claim for death benefits. That’s how she discovered that her husband, like the vast majority of miners in Rubaya, worked without a contract.
“In DRC, the mining industry is not organized,” says Janvier Murairi, a human rights researcher and president of ASSODIP, a natural resources management watchdog. “People work in disorder, and corruption is everywhere. So when a digger dies, nobody is responsible.”
The deaths of informal workers have become so common here that they have a name: fuko. The word means “covered by the earth.”
Global Press Journal reporters in three provinces were not able to find any families who had received compensation for the deaths of their loved ones, including informal—or artisanal—workers who were, in some cases, exploited by mining companies.
Esther Nsapu , GPJ DRC
Representatives from Société Minière de Bisunzu (SMB) and the Cooperative of Artisanal Mine Operators of Masisi, or COOPERAMMA, two locally active mining companies, told GPJ that accidents are infrequent, thanks to new open-pit mining techniques. Both companies declined to reveal the number of miners they engage, either formally or informally, and refused to comment on the legal status of their workers.
Robert Seninga, chairperson of COOPERAMMA mine, says that when a miner dies on the job, the cooperative provides support of varying amounts to the family.
“There is no compensation that can ease the pain of losing one you love,” Seninga says. “What we do is [provide] necessary support to the victim’s family.”
Seninga acknowledges that illegal workers find their way into the mines, but he absolves the company of responsibility. Those illegal workers come after hours, he says.
“Informal workers who come in to try to work at night put themselves in a difficult situation that may cause an accident,” he says.
According to ASSODIP’s research, there are about 5,000 active miners in Rubaya, but only about 600 of those are legally known. ASSODIP is the acronym for Association pour le Développement des Initiatives Paysannes.
“We have found that the number of diggers registered is totally different to the reality in the field, where a large number of people work illegally,” Murairi says.
At least one miner dies every month at sites in Rubaya, says Dunia Tibere, the program manager at the Governance and Peace Monitoring Office, an organization that promotes sustainable management of natural resources for the benefit of communities affected by artisanal mining activities. Workers often use rudimentary equipment and have no access to adequate protective gear, Tibere says.
Mining regulations are often ignored. While the Ministry of Mining recommends miners dig a maximum of 30 meters below the surface, miners here generally dip up to 200 meters.
“In most cases, miners die because of landslides, lack of oxygen, asphyxiation or machinery failure,” Tibere says.
It was a combination of problems that led to Mugisho’s death. Maliyamungu and Mugisho’s childhood friend, Action Baguma, investigated the circumstances of his death and described what happened to a Global Press reporter.
Weeks after returning to the mine from his visit home, Mugisho descended into a shaft with 17 other miners. It began to rain heavily, and water poured down the shaft, eventually forcing its collapse. Piles of black sand blocked escape routes, trapping the miners below the surface. In a time span that others recall as several hours, miners rescued some and recovered one body.
But others, including Mugisho, were missing. The whereabouts of his remains are still unknown.
Baguma says Mugisho’s identity card was later found at the scene.
“When we learned that there were landslides on the site where my husband was working, I could not think that he was part of those who had died,” Maliyamungu says.
The unsafe conditions that led to Mugisho’s death are common in Rubaya.
Gode, 25, who agreed to speak about the lack of safety in the mines on condition of anonymity, says being a miner means being treated like a machine.
“Those responsible for supervising the digging of pits never care about our safety, and we’re always being given over to death,” he says. “In fact, we’re regarded as people who are already dead, because when one enters a pit, no one can hope to see them again.”
Ndabazi, 33, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, has survived five years in the Rubaya mines. But life there is treacherous, he says, especially when the rains come.
“During the rainy season, landslides occur and trap us inside the mines, causing deaths by suffocation,” he says. “Only those fortune smiles on survive. Most of our fellow miners dug pits without them knowing that they were digging their own grave. They died inside the mines, and their bodies have gone undiscovered.”
Gode says he has heard of families who collected benefits after a relative died in the mines.
“The amount of compensation a victim’s family can get depends on the pressure exerted on the mining operators,” Gode says. “There are those who receive $1,000 or $300.”
But he admits that he doesn’t have direct knowledge of any sort of compensation being made.
Maliyamungu, Mugisho’s wife, doesn’t expect she’ll ever receive any compensation for his death.
“Every day that passes, I remember my husband,” she says. “He left me with two children alone, but what is grieving me every single day is that I did not get a chance to bury him.”
Noella Nyirabihogo, GPJ, contributed reporting for this article.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French.