"I dig every day to help my family," says 12-year-old gold miner Eric Tanguda, as he scrambles through the ankle-deep mud in a yawning open-pit mine in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
This region, in Africa's heartland, has some of the world's biggest gold deposits. But for years competition to reap its riches - with the labor of men and boys like Eric - has helped fuel armed conflict, including a 1998-2003 war that resulted in up to four million deaths.
But now there are growing efforts to halt the region's resource-related troubles. A June report by the international group Human Rights Watch shed light on the role of local militias, which apparently have ties to neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. They were using proceeds from gold mining to buy weapons to further their battle over control of the most productive mining areas, the report said. In the process, they killed thousands of civilians and extorted many poor local miners.
The militias also got financial and logistical support, the report charged, from a South-Africa-based multinational mining firm, AngloGold Ashanti. The company admits that a militia extorted about $9,000 from its staff near the mining town of Mongbwalu. But it has reviewed its operations and vowed to prevent any more extortion, even as it continues its gold exploration with an eye toward opening a full-scale mine here.
"At the moment, we think it's possible for AngloGold Ashanti to do business in Mongbwalu in a way that's consistent with our values and principles," says spokesman Steven Lenahan. "If it were brought to our attention that there was a breakdown, we would immediately take [our staff] out."
A major force preventing a breakdown - and allowing miners like Eric to make money for themselves - is the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, which now has a battalion in Mongbwalu. The militias' overt presence has receded. Security is improving, which could also make it possible for locals to vote in national elections, expected next year. Also, the Human Rights Watch report prompted a Swiss firm, Metalor Technologies, to forswear buying "tainted gold" from Congo, which is typically smuggled out via Uganda.
Yet the digging continues. The war destroyed most other employment options, so many locals go to "the holes." Many diggers are ex-militia members, including young men and boys, who use picks and shovels now. At one mine near Mongbwalu, roughly 40 percent of the workers are under 18. About 25 percent are 12 to 14 years old.
Each miner gets paid in mine muck, usually three buckets for a full day's work, and all the gold that may or may not be in it.
One 12-year-old, who didn't give his name, says he works only for himself. "Both my parents were killed in the war," he says, walking along with a bucket of mud balanced on his head.