By Kelly Lundeen
On August 6…, people around the world commemorated … the first atomic bombs … dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. People gathered with flags and flowers to remember the effects and destruction caused by the thermal and nuclear radiation from the bombs. No such ceremony took place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
— Dr. Jean Bele, Congolese Nuclear Physicist at the MIT Laboratories
Before that uranium could destroy life in Japan, it first started by destroying life in Shinkolobwe.
— Joe-Yves Salankang Sa Ngol, Vice-Chairperson, Congolese Civil Society in South Africa
Roughly 80 percent of the uranium used for the world’s first atomic bombs came from the Shinkolobwe mine in the Belgian Congo, now known as Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). As the name implies, the Belgian Congo was a colony. Forced labor was the norm for colonizers to exploit the rich natural resources, leaving the indigenous Congolese workers impoverished, sick, or dead from radiation exposure, working conditions, or murder.
One of the original stories of nuclear colonialism began in DRC after nuclear fission was discovered in 1938. Suddenly the high-grade Congolese uranium acquired new economic value. The Belgian company that managed the Shinkolobwe mine sold its first 4,200 metric tons of uranium to the U.S. to supply the Manhattan Project, and U.S. Army engineers were deployed to Shinkolobwe to deplete the uranium from the land.
Ironically, mine director Belgian Edgar Sengier, whose brutal working conditions led to the murder and irradiation of the Congolese, was rewarded: He was given the U.S. president’s Medal for Merit, despite a U.S. intelligence finding that he sold 1.5 million pounds of Congolese uranium to the Nazis.
While no records were kept of radiation-induced diseases or workers dying in the mines, some stories have been passed on — of genetically inherited malformations, and cancer. A deceased uranium miner’s granddaughter, Sylvie Bambemba Mwela, spoke of her grandfather at one of the Missing Link events. He died with his brain coming out of his mouth.
Overcoming inhumane conditions, miners at Shinkolobwe organized for an increase in wages, then equivalent to 20 cents a day. Around 1,000 workers went on strike in 1941 and won an agreement with management. Instead of signing the contract as strike leader Léonard Mpoyi demanded, the colonial governor shot and killed him. After that, 70 more workers were killed by soldiers. Resistance was met with the most severe repression, but the strike succeeded in a 40% raise.
In the eyes of Western colonizers, the lives of the Congolese workers were considered completely expendable, and they have never been recognized, much less compensated for their suffering. — Wired, Aug. 21, 2023; BBC, Aug. 3, 2020; Talking Humanities, Aug. 18, 2016; Tom Zoellner, Uranium, 2009.