Growing evidence of radioactive contamination in DRC

 A view of Lubumbashi with a hill caused by smelting in the background

A view of Lubumbashi with a hill caused by smelting in the background

Human rights activists say uranium is being mined illegally in DRC. Doctors record an increase in the number of pre-birth deformities in areas close to mines.

Kimilolo is a small settlement on the banks of the Kafubu River in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), just a short distance away from the provincial capital Lubumbashi. At first sight, all seems calm. Water from the river flows into artificial fishponds. For more than 10 years, human rights activist Jean-Claude Baka has been coming to the river to take water samples. The reason: more and more fish in the ponds have been dying and people in the surrounding area have been falling ill, some have died. Baka wants to find out why. He suspects the reason is radioactive contamination. But to find proof is an extremely risky business, he says.

Human rights activist Jean Claude Baka takes water samples Photo: Simone Schlindwein
Human rights activist Jean Claude Baka takes water samples Photo: Simone Schlindwein

“Someone like me who specialises in tracking down illegal supplies of uranium has to be very careful since important politicians and business people are earning money from smuggling,” he says. To back this up, he tells the following story. Two years ago, a truck carrying uranium was stopped and confiscated as it drove out of the Shinkolobwe mine. Officially, the mine is closed. A journalist on the scene took pictures of the truck and measured the radiation being emitted, Baka told DW. A few days later the journalist was dead. “Whether he died from natural causes or was murdered to cover up evidence – only God knows,” said Baka.

Dangerous emissions – risky research

Shinkolobwe is one of several uranium mines in the area around Lubumbashi and is one of the oldest in the world. The uranium used in the atom bombs dropped by the US in 1945 on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came from Shinkolobwe.

The mine has been officially closed since 2004 and legislation prohibits any extraction or trade with the radioactive raw material. However, the head of the human rights association “Association Africaine des Droits de l’Homme” (ASADHO), Golden Misabiko, published documents showing that mining was taking place illegally.

Shortly afterwards Misabiko was arrested. His place has been taken by his colleague Jean-Claude Baka who repeatedly records high levels of radioactivity in the water and the soil.

Deformed babies

A mineworker at Shinkolobwe nmine shortly before it was officially closed (ddp images/AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)
A mineworker at Shinkolobwe nmine shortly before it was officially closed (ddp images/AP Photo/Schalk van ZuydaClinic Number 17 has the reputation of being the best clinic in Lubumbashi for pregnant women. Gynacologist Professor Gabriel Kapya specialises in the pre-birth identification of deformities. For 20 years he was the company doctor at DRC’s largest mining company Gecamines. There he treated the wives of mineworkers. In the last few years Kapya diagnosed an increasing number of pre-birth physical abnormalities.

“We gynacologists have registered an increase in the number of serious deformities,” Kapya told DW. He noticed this particularly in 2006 and 2007 when the trading price for uranium was high and it seems that many workers streamed to the mines to earn money illegally.

Kapya showed photographs of deformed embryos. One foetus has an open stomach, another has an external tumor. In the case of one child, its sex cannot be determined. “These are all children of men living and working in the mine,” Kapya said. He produced another photo and recounted how a woman came to him. A medical scan revealed that the embryo was alive but it had no head. “We induced a miscarriage,” Kapya said. “We couldn’t show the mother her baby – it would have been too traumatic for her.”

For Kapya, there is no doubt that the parents of the headless baby were subjected to radioactive contamination.

‘Military and police involvement’

Several reports by the United Nations, as well as documents from the US embassy in DRC’s capital Kinshasa, which were published by the online portal Wikileaks in 2011, provide additional evidence that uranium is being secretly extracted in numerous mines in the Lubumbashi region.

A multinational mining company owned by Belgian entrepreneur George Arthur Forrest is also suspected of mining not only copper and cobalt, but also uranium illegally. In an interview with DW, Forrest admitted he has problems with the mineworkers. “They come and do what they want. There’s anarchy and chaos and that’s dangerous,” he said. But he rejects any responsility for criminal acts. He puts the blame on the police and military. They were the ones who sent the men into the mines, he said. “That’s illegal, we have no control over this. The human rights activists who point the finger at us – why don’t they target the real smugglers whose identity is known?” he asks. “Why do they accuse us? We have also fought against corruption. That’s blackmail.”

While Jean-Claude Baka risks his life in Lubumbashi to uncover the illegal trade in uranium, politicians in Kinshasa are thinking about using nuclear power to improve the supply of electricity in the country. Africa’s oldest atomic reactor (built in 1958) is located in Kinshasa. It was switched off in 2004. Now the possibility of starting it up again is being examined. By then at the latest, the DRC ought to have tightened its legislation on uranium mining.