Miraculous rescue of trapped Congolese miners highlights dangerous conditions

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One by one, the men pop out of a small hole in the earth to the cheers of dozens of fellow miners. Ten artisanal miners were rescued on March 24 after spending 18 hours trapped underground after a landslide at the Mitondo Hill mining site in the South Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. A video showing the rescue was shared widely online. While initial reports say that no lives were lost in this accident, it was a close call – and remains proof of the terrible danger faced daily by the nation’s artisanal miners. 

The stunning, almost unbelievable, video shows a man balanced on a patch of earth, using a shovel to create an opening. He brings down the shovel several times before a man springs from the earth – one of the trapped miners. Eight other men pop out behind him in quick succession, to the yells of the crowd. This incredible video, filmed the afternoon of March 24 at the Mitondo Hill mining site in Nyange, South Kivu, has since garnered tens of thousands of views on different platforms. 

In this tweet in French, Fiston Mahamba Wa Biondi says that most artisanal miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo don’t have any kind of protective equipment. He adds, “the rescue after a landslide is a miracle!”

Our team spoke to witnesses who said that miners were digging for gold in a tunnel in the hill when, around 10pm, it started to rain, provoking a landslide. Ten men – nine of whom appear in the video – were trapped in the tunnel for 18 hours. 

‘There was an enormous amount of earth to move, which took several hours’

Patrice Kabwe Kashindi is the managing director of the Ngandja mining cooperative. He helped the rescue effort:

We started the rescue work around 8am, mainly using motor pumps to remove the water. There were a lot of people working to help, including miners from different cooperatives. We were assisted by teams from SAEMAPE [Editor’s note: an acronym for the Service for the assistance and supervision of small-scale and artisanal mining, which is part of the Ministry of Mining].

We also had assistance from the mining police. There was an enormous amount of earth to move, which took several hours. 

Then, finally, around 4pm, we finally reached our goal and the first miner was able to get out. 

According to witnesses, none of the ten miners were seriously injured. They are doing well and have even started working again. 

The men who survived the landslide on Mitondo hill in Nyange on March 24, 2023.
The men who survived the landslide on Mitondo hill in Nyange on March 24, 2023. © Observers

‘They survived because their mining shaft was ventilated and was pretty large’

Guillaume Ali is a Congolese investigator with IPIS, an independent research institute in Belgium. He focuses on the conflicts and natural resources around Africa’s Great Lakes region. He spoke to several witnesses of the incident.  

There are many tunnels and shafts dug into the side of Mitondo Hill, one on top of another. When the miners work, they throw earth and rocks out onto the slope. So when there is a heavy rain, the water picks up all of the earth and debris, and, when there is too much water, it all starts to slide. When a landslide like that happens, big pieces fall first. It’s so dangerous that it is impossible to launch a rescue effort until conditions are better or you risk the lives of the rescuers as well. 

This group survived because their shaft was ventilated and was pretty large [Editor’s note: The sources who spoke to our team said that the shafts were between 60 and 300 metres long. We were unable to independently verify this.]

Moreover, as you can see in the video, the shaft was almost horizontal and not vertical, which allowed them to save oxygen. It’s really important not to move very much in these situations in order to save oxygen. But in a vertical shaft, the men would have had to climb and move, which would have made the situation more difficult.

Mitondo Hill is an important mining site and we’ve documented that there are more than 250 tunnels dug into it. As soon as someone thinks that they’ve found a seam, they’ll dig a new one. 

The miners dig these tunnels in an anarchic fashion, there is no plan – so Mitondo Hill is essentially a tangle of tunnels and shafts. Many of them aren’t solid and are ready to collapse. The fact that these tunnels intersect, in both Mitondo and other mining sites, is one of the main causes of death among miners.

About eight kilos of gold are mined each week at the Mitondo site, according to Ipis. About 2,500 artisanal miners work there – for most of them, this is the best chance to make some money. But there are many accidents here, just like in other regional mining sites. Landslides at the Mitondo site caused three deaths and 40 injuries between October 2022 and February 2023, according to IPIS. Moreover, an armed group, the Mai Mai Yakutumba, uses Mitondo to finance itself. 

>> Read more on The Observers: Children still working in gold mines in the DR Congo, human rights groups say

“From a work safety perspective, all is well” in the region’s mines, the Minister for South Kivu Mines, Kok Chirimwani, told the FRANCE 24 Observers team. Chirimwani travelled to Mitondo on March 31. 

“There are sometimes small incidents when people work during non-authorised hours,” Chirimwani added, referring to those working at night. He added that SAEMAPE tells miners to stop working when it is raining, unlike the miners who were trapped in the recent landslides.

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