Congo: its past, present and link to Hiroshima

On 6 August – Hiroshima Day – I participated in a groundbreaking event at the South African Museum in Cape Town entitled ‘The Missing Link: Peace and Security Surrounding Uranium’. The event had been organised by the Congolese Civil Society of South Africa (CCSSA) to put a spotlight on the link between Japan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): that the uranium used to build the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima came from the Shinkolobwe mine in the province of Katanga. This was the richest uranium in the world, an average of 65 per cent uranium oxide, in comparison with American or Canadian ore, which contained less than one per cent. The mine is now closed, but its existence put it at the centre of the Manhattan Project in the Second World War, when the Congo was a Belgian colony and the Congolese suffered from the harsh colonial reality of racism, segregation and extreme inequities. Following the war, the mine became a focus for the Cold War conflict between the superpowers. Today, freelance miners, desperate to earn a living, still go to the site to dig out uranium and cobalt, at severe risk to their health. The CCSSA seeks to bring together the DRC community living in the Cape Town area.

In February this year they presented a memorandum to the South African Parliament, asking for support for human rights and democracy in DRC. The organisers[i] believe that the uniqueness of Shinkolobwe’s ore has had a destructive impact on their history and they held their first Missing Link event last year, at the University of Cape Town. This developed out of a proposal by Isaiah Mombilo, the CCSSA General Secretary, to the Scalabrini Centre, a secular non-government organisation in Cape Town established by the Scalabrini Fathers, which cares for the needs of migrants and refugees from African nations. The CCSSA is based at the Scalabrini Centre. The second Missing Link event was much more ambitious than the first. The lecture hall at the museum was packed with Congolese, including families with children, and other members of the public. A number of people hailed from the area around Likasi, the nearest town to Shinkolobwe. Posters were put on the walls, including the flags of Japan and DRC, next to each other. Many women wore striking and brightly-coloured kangas.

I had been invited to the event because my new book, Spies in the Congo, centres on America’s efforts to secure all the uranium in the Belgian Congo, following Einstein’s warning of the risk that Nazi Germany was building an atomic bomb. The US arranged for its wartime intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services, to send some agents to the Congo to protect the transit of the ore and to prevent smuggling to Germany. The story of these courageous agents – and the dangers they encountered from Nazi sympathisers in the mining multi-nationals and the Belgian colonial administration – has been secret until now. Haunted by the ghost of Hiroshima Also secret, for many long years, was the reliance of the American atomic project on Congolese ore. Following Hiroshima, a statement by Churchill drew attention to the ‘indispensable raw material for the project’ provided by Canada, but made no mention of the Congo.

The impact on DRC has been largely invisible to the wider world. But in the local community, it was fully apparent. Oliver Tshinyoka, a journalist in the CCSSA, grew up close to Shinkolobwe, which he describes as a deserted place where vegetation blankets empty homes. His profound words end my book: ‘Shinkolobwe has never been commemorated. The town is dead and is haunted by the ghost of Hiroshima.’ There was little in the way of health and safety precautions. Speakers at the Missing Link event told of the deformities and illness caused by working in the mine and living near it. Sylvie Bambemba Mwela spoke with pain of her grandfather, who had been poisoned by radiation and had a piece of brain coming out of his mouth. People nodded in vigorous assent to the statement that when a miner went near a television, he caused severe interference with reception. There were sad references to genetically inherited malformations.

Poems had been written for the event, including Shinkolobwe’s Tear by 14-year-old Benina Mombilo. ‘When the predator took Africa’s mines,’ she stated quietly to a spellbound audience, ‘he left behind death, poverty, conflict and war.’ Christian Sita Mampuya observed thoughtfully that none of the people living in the Likasi area had been consulted on why the uranium was mined. Nor, he added, are there any records available about the impact on DRC of the exposure to radiation over the last seven decades. Léonard Mulunda, in a trenchant political analysis, insisted firmly that the Congolese must take responsibility for themselves, for their own welfare and government. But he noted that DRC’s lack of information about its past makes it difficult for the Congolese to plan for the present and the future. For this reason, he emphasised the significance and value of the Missing Link event. Its importance was also highlighted this month in the USA – by Dr Akiko Mikamo, the author of Rising from the Ashes, whose father Shinji Mikamo is one of the Hibakusha, who are the survivors of Hiroshima.

Last year, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and the United Nations Association Westminster Branch invited Dr Mikamo to give a keynote speech at a conference at the School of Advanced Study on nuclear politics and the historical record. Here she learned about the Congo-Hiroshima link for the first time. ‘None of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors I was in contact with,’ she has explained, ‘had any knowledge of it.’ ‘A searching and constructive examination of the past’ Dr Mikamo introduced this story and the CCSSA’s efforts to the International Peace and Humanity Day 2016, a Peace Forum held this month by the non-profit organisation, San Diego-WISH (Worldwide Initiative to Safeguard Humanity). ‘It is very important,’ observes Dr Mikamo, ‘that we learn also about the people and regions that are not widely known or “big players” in history textbooks. But those people’s lives have been significantly affected, and it has serious implications for our global society’s future.

I received many comments from those who attended that it was extremely educational and inspirational to learn about The Missing Link.’ This global connection came full circle at Cape Town’s Missing Link event, where warm and appreciative references were made to Dr Mikamo’s work. The sufferings generated from Congo’s uranium featured in the singing and dancing during the interval. One song was entitled ‘La peine et la generation suivante de Shinkolobwe’. A deeply moving contribution was a poem entitled A Bomb Fashioned out of Dirt, which was delivered with great power by Beauty Gloria Kalenga and brought tears to many of our eyes. This dirt, she said, using another name for the mine and playing on its meaning, was ‘a fruit that scalds known as Shikolombwe’. The question period was a time of dignified and respectful dialogue, when many engaged with the issues faced by DRC at this moment, especially in relation to the presidency of Joseph Kabila. Some argued that Shinkolobwe’s miners and their families should be compensated by the Belgian and US governments, but there was a consensus that compensation should be postponed until there are mechanisms to ensure it is received by the victims.

The formal part of the event was brought to an end with words by Neil Goodwin, the Human Rights officer at the Scalabrini Centre, and Fidèle Kalombo. But people were still eager to speak and at the reception, conversation was animated. The Missing Link event was a searching and constructive examination of the past and its relationship to the present. It seemed to me to exemplify the value of public engagement at its best, where everyone listens and interacts and benefits together. Isaiah Mombilo, speaking on behalf of the CCSSA, said he was proud that DRC’s role in the history of the world was witnessed so successfully on Hiroshima Day in Cape Town this month. It was a way, he believed, of ‘claiming Shinkolobwe’s tears’. But this, he added, was only the beginning: ‘There is more to say.’

Susan Williams

Originally published by
Talking Humanities
August 18, 2016

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