How New Doc ‘Merci Congo’ Sheds Light on Deadly Conflict
“This machine is called a computer.”
Neema Namadamu is standing in a small room in the remote Itombwe Plateau in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, teaching a group of women how to use a laptop. It’s the first time most of them have ever seen the technology. The scene serves as an emotional anchor to Paul Freedman’s new documentary Merci Congo, which looks to lift the veil on the African nation’s ongoing conflict: a war that has taken the lives of more than five million Congolese.
“That was my dream becoming reality,” says Namadamu, about the experience. “You saw these women holding the computer, Skyping. They were hugging me and crying and saying ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'” But Namadamu’s efforts were just one piece of the film’s overarching puzzle.
“I had made a couple of films in the region,” Freedman tells Rolling Stone. “We had just finished a film about Darfur and I said ‘I really want to do a Congo film.'” Teaming up with friends at the Enough Project, a non-profit that looks to end genocide and mass atrocities throughout the world, Freedman decided to travel to the country and interview people on the ground. “Instead of finding out why [people] are committing genocide and why there is greed and murder,” he says, “I wanted to find out how hope and resilience can bubble up — even amidst that stuff.”
Freedman found it through his film’s subjects. In addition to Namadamu, there was Mama Justine, who works with survivors of rape and sexual assault; Katy, an American college student fighting for the use of conflict-free minerals; and Fidel Bafilemba, a Congo native who currently leads 14 local human rights groups that focus on the country’s natural resources. According to Holly Dranginis, a senior policy analysis for the Enough Project, much of the country’s violence is centered in mineral-rich territories. Many of the materials mined in those regions end up being used in everyday products, like cell phones and computers. For Bafilemba, those minerals are a through line to Congo’s current issues.
“When you speak of conflict minerals you speak of security, you speak of human rights violations, you speak of sexual violence,” he says. That is why Bafilemba advocates for documentarians like Freedman to come and experience Congo first-hand. Anyone coming to Congo we will welcome them because we want Congo to be open to the world. It has been unreported for half a century. I took Paul to the territories where most of the human rights violations are going on. And now it’s paying off.”
He’s right: Over the last decade, many of the region’s militants have laid down their arms, and mines that were once controlled by warlords are now conflict-free. Much of that change has come through the help of corporate giants like Intel. Back in 2009, Brian Krzanich, then the company’s head of supply chain (he’s now CEO), received a letter from the Enough Project, informing him that many of the minerals that the company was using to produce processors were being procured through violence and child labor. So Krzanich came up with an ambitious goal: By 2014, every microprocessor Intel made would use only conflict-free minerals.
“We had a lot of discussions like, Why don’t we just not source from the Congo?” says Carolyn Duran, the Conflict Minerals Program Manager for Intel. “But the team was like, that’s not right, because people are destitute there, and if they need to make a living with mining, we should let them. We could make the situation worse.”
With the help of the Enough Project, Intel was finally able to get to a place where it could map, test and trace the minerals coming through their supply chain. Two years after successfully hitting Krzanich’s initial goal, the company announced that they were on track to make all products conflict-free in 2016. “It shouldn’t be special having a conflict-free product,” Duran says. “It should be an expectation. We’re so quick to [make] the end [product] that we’re not paying attention to where it comes from.”
While Bafilemba is happy with Intel’s involvement and the progress his country has made over the last decade, he knows there is still much more work to be done. Both Namadamu and Bafilemba agree that events that combine outreach and education are a big step in creating a conflict-free nation. The road ahead may be difficult, but it’s not impossible.
“I want people to know Congo. I want everyone to know the good things, the bad things,” says Namadamu. “Because if you could use the minerals we have in Congo [in the right way], a good change can come.”
Adds Bafilemba, “I think things are changing in a way where I can speak openly. But of course we want more. We want access to health care, education, technology as Neema has been doing, we want access to clean water, roads. Those are battles we have chosen. And we are going to win.”
On Saturday, June 11th there will be a Merci Congo Screening + Q&A at Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival with director Paul Freedman, presented by Intel. Rolling Stone contributing editor Mark Binelli will also moderate two panels at this year’s festival to bring attention to international social causes, and conflict-free issues. Presented by Intel, musicians, activists and advocates will discuss “Changing the World One Purchase at a Time” and “How to Turn Your Passion Into Advocacy” at the Solar Stage.