Deborah* walks down a mud alley between houses cobbled together with plywood and sheets of tarpaulin.
On the corner, fuzzy beats emanate from a tin-roofed nightclub. It is only 2pm but drunk men are already hovering at the door, necking beers and milky glasses of moonshine.
Inside it is dark, except for some disco lights that flash green and red. A small group of people are huddled at a table. This place will fill up in the evening, Deborah says, but right now most men are up on the hillside, digging for gold.
She often comes here at night when she is looking for clients.
Deborah, who is 17, works as a prostitute in Luhihi, a town on the edge of a gold mine in South Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). She moved here a year ago, soon after the most recent gold rush began.
People first started digging in Luhihi in 2014, but when deposits seemed to dry up, most went elsewhere. Then, in May 2020, a man found a large lump of gold and the news quickly spread across the region.
Within weeks, hundreds of miners had turned up with spades and pickaxes. They dug tunnels, some as deep as 30 metres, into the hillside. They now spend their days underground, shovelling earth into sacks. They hope that nestled somewhere amid the grit they will spot a glinting speck of gold.
Many miners are already frustrated, though, and say they have not found gold in months. Some sit at the mouths of the pits, smoking cigarettes while they wait for their friends to emerge from deep within. Lots of people have already drifted off to try their luck at other sites, says one young miner, after clambering out of a tunnel wearing a head torch.
At its height, the Luhihi gold rush also attracted a lot of enterprising businessmen who erected bars, brothels, clubs and gambling dens at the bottom of the valley. Miners still mill around, especially in the evenings, but the town is not the bustling place it once was.
In the evenings, women and girls working as prostitutes – some as young as 14 – linger on muddy street corners, waiting for customers. Faced with few alternatives in an impoverished region, ravaged by insecurity, they sell their bodies to put food on the table.
‘Sometimes they force you to have sex’
Deborah came to Luhihi when a friend told her that she might be able to find work in one of the makeshift restaurants or bars that had just sprung up. But after days of trawling the town and finding no jobs, she started to get desperate.
“I was staying with my friend, Claudine*, who was selling beer but also sleeping with men for money,” she says. “I used to ask her for things, like food, but she did not have much to share. At some point she said, ‘Look, you are a big girl, you can make your own money by finding men’.”
Claudine warned Deborah to use condoms when she slept with men to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Her first client, a man in his 20s, tried to have sex without one. She refused and he left, only to return the following night, this time agreeing to her conditions and offering her $10 for the night. It does not always happen this way.
“After they give you the money, they sometimes just force you to have sex with them without a condom,” Deborah says. “Or they refuse to pay if you ask them to use one.”
The morning after having unprotected sex, she takes two aspirins, believing this will reduce her risk of pregnancy.
Whole villages disrupted
In a country where 70 percent of the population survives on less than $2 a day, survival sex is widespread says Lorenza Trulli, a child protection officer for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Matters are even worse in the conflict-racked eastern provinces where fighting exacerbates poverty.
While Luhihi is not overrun by rebels – largely because it is relatively close to the busy, provincial capital of Bukavu – militiamen roam the region and control other mines nearby.
“What is clear is that in conflict-affected areas the risks of violence and sexual exploitation against girls are multi-layered,” says Trulli.
“First of all, access to schools might be disrupted as a consequence of conflict. Insecurity might mean people – women, and girls in particular – cannot safely move around. The whole socioeconomic fabric of a village might be disrupted.”
UNICEF has programmes in the province that offer psychosocial support and medical care to women in need, though no organisation is yet working with vulnerable women and girls in Luhihi.
Caught in the crossfire
Deborah’s life was derailed more than a decade ago when her father was shot by rebels outside her family’s house in Numbi, another mining town in the same province of South Kivu. Militiamen were firing at soldiers and her father was caught in the crossfire when he rushed outside to protect his other daughter, who was sitting near the house.
Deborah was just six but her mother could not afford to support her alone, so she dropped out of school and went to live with some neighbours. She would help clean their house in exchange for a place to sleep and some food. As she got older, they told her that they could no longer afford to look after her, so she approached another family. For years, she drifted from house to house, working odd jobs and receiving shelter and meals in return.
By the time she was 15, Deborah had reached Bukavu, which is around 50km from Luhihi’s mines. A soldier in her neighbourhood invited her to his house, saying he wanted to speak with her and offer her some money and food.
When Deborah got there, he sat her down and suggested that he pay her $5 for sex. She refused, but he forced himself on her.
She fell pregnant and now has a one-year-old son, whom she struggles to support. “He is often sick,” she says, “And I need money to buy him medicine.” This is largely what drove her to go and look for work in Luhihi.
Minerals and militiamen
Much of the earth across eastern DRC is studded with minerals, such as gold and coltan, a metal used in mobile phone batteries. Yet the region’s riches barely benefit those living there. In fact, they are the driving force behind a conflict that has raged for 25 years.
Roughly 120 different rebel groups hide in the jungly eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri, according to the Kivu Security Tracker, a joint project run by the Congo Research Group and charity, Human Rights Watch. Militia groups (who often collaborate with the national army) fight for control of mines and fund themselves by smuggling minerals into neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, a UN group of experts wrote in their annual report last year.
Conflict gold is the largest source of revenue for armed actors in the region. According to The Sentry, an American investigative charity, somewhere between $300m and $600m is smuggled out of the country each year. Much of it is hidden underneath trucks (and sometimes even inside tyres) which roll over the border into Uganda, where there is a gold refinery.
The UN experts also wrote that, “Over 95 percent of gold exports from Uganda were of non-Ugandan origin for 2019.” Most of it, of course, comes from DRC. There are few incentives to export gold legally as the taxes are so high. Corrupt officials at checkpoints often demand extra, unofficial levies from anyone who is visibly carrying gold, say local traders.
It is a similar story with coltan. Rwanda, which produces comparatively little coltan, is consistently one of the world’s biggest exporters of the metal, but much of it is Congolese.
As a lot of coltan leaves DRC in secret, it is difficult to know precisely how much is really produced there. In his book The Looting Machine, Tom Burgis writes that about 20 percent of the world’s coltan is produced in the DRC. “Depending on the vagaries of supply chains, if you have a PlayStation or a pacemaker, an iPod, a laptop, or a mobile phone, there is roughly a one-in-five chance that a tiny piece of eastern Congo is pulsing within it,” he explains.
‘Pretend not to see’
Francois* is a smuggler living in neighbouring North Kivu province. He wears pointy white leather shoes and a frilly purple shirt and smells faintly of alcohol. He discloses some secrets of the business. Women often transport coltan from the mines on market days, he says, hidden in sacks underneath potatoes and beans. Once it reaches a city on the border with Rwanda, it is stacked into secret compartments that are fixed underneath trucks.
“Everyone at the border knows it is happening, but they pretend not to see,” he says.
Some efforts have been made to reduce smuggling and prevent mineral wealth from reaching rebel pockets. Luhihi’s mines were closed in March for three months after provincial authorities said that they contravened local laws. For one, armed government soldiers were lingering at the site, allegedly as guards, which is forbidden. Children were descending into unsafe tunnels and anyone who wanted to, could turn up with a spade and start digging.
When the mines reopened in June, there were stricter rules. Miners had to register with a local cooperative and display their identification badges at the bottom of the hill. Children were chased off the site and a clean gold initiative, funded by USAID, now works with local authorities with the aim of better tracing the gold as it moves from the pit to point of sale.
‘I try not to think about what is happening’
Since Luhihi’s pits reopened, some miners have come back, but there are far fewer than before.
Deborah struggles to find customers and has to accept smaller payments for sex. Sometimes, punters give her as little as $2.50. She usually sees them in her bedroom which is made from sheets of blue tarpaulin, held up with sticks. Her bed is a slab of plywood with a single, grubby sheet draped over it.
“They stole my mattress last week,” she says, explaining that thieves broke in while she was out and there was little else in the room that was worth stealing. Her clothes hang on a washing line along one wall and underneath them is a broken shard of mirror and a toothbrush in a plastic mug.
Her son does not stay with her – he is being looked after by friends in Bukavu. Once Deborah has enough money for the journey, she will go back to see him.
Conditions for prostitutes are particularly bleak in seedy mining towns like Luhihi. The women and girls have nowhere to turn for protection. There is little that they can do when one of their clients hits them or decides to leave without paying.
“These men can be rough with you because they are stressed,” says Deborah. “They are taking big risks every day in the tunnels,” she adds.
Mining in the eastern DRC is dangerous: tunnels often collapse, killing those inside. Last year, 50 people died at an unregulated gold mine not far from Luhihi. During a period of unusually heavy rain, water flooded the tunnels prompting them to cave in, suffocating everyone inside.
Despite everything, Deborah is upbeat and laughs a lot. She wants to practise her English, which is good, and speaks slowly, making sure she pronounces each word correctly.
She says she would leave the town at once if she had an alternative way to make money.
Deborah manages to cope with the day to day by not letting herself think too much about it.
“When I am sleeping with men, I try not to think about what is happening to me and what has happened in my life,” she says, later on, fighting back tears. “If I do then I start worrying about my child and how I will be able to send him to school and give him a better chance in the world.”
Deborah dreams of going back to school herself or starting a small business to bring in some cash. She would like to move back to Bukavu, where she used to love singing in the choir at church.
“I feel good when I sing. I pray to God and ask him for a miracle. Maybe he will give me a better life one day,” she says, flashing a hopeful smile. -ALJAZEERA
*Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities.