Colonialism Today: From The Crisis in Congo to Capsizing Boats in the Mediterranean

Featuring Eugene Puryear and Giulia Messmer

by Kate Horgan
Published: Last Updated on
The Project Censored Show
The Official Project Censored Show
Colonialism Today: From The Crisis in Congo to Capsizing Boats in the Mediterranean

Be it in the Mediterranean or the heart of Africa in Congo, colonialism isn’t past, it’s a modern day disaster. In the first half of the show, journalist and activist Eugene Puryear joins Eleanor Goldfield to bring us information on the so-called silent holocaust taking place in the Congo where some 6 million people have died as nations across the region and the world vie for the more than $24 trillion worth of natural resources within Congo’s borders. Next up, Giulia Messmer from Sea Watch explains her organization’s rescue work in the Mediterranean, how European nations are moving to criminalize migration, cross-border solidarity, and more.


Video of Interview with Eugene Puryear

Video of Interview with Giulia Messmer

Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Eugene Puryear

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Eleanor Goldfield: Thanks, everyone, for joining us back at the Project Censored radio show. We’re very glad right now to be joined by Eugene Puryear, who’s an American journalist, author, activist, politician, and host on Breakthrough News.

He is also the author of “Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America.” Eugene, thanks so much for being here.

Eugene Puryear: Eleanor, thank you so much for having me on. It’s really an honor to have the opportunity to come back.

Eleanor Goldfield: The honor’s mine.

So I wanted to ask you on today to talk about something that I doubt folks are hearing about at the moment: the DRC, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has vast stores of coltan, gold, tin, cobalt, copper, zinc, diamonds, and other rare earth minerals which should be a source of great wealth and stability, based on capitalist supply and demand, right?

But thanks to imperialism, this is instead a source of great poverty and instability. And since about 1996, as I understand it, Congo has been in the throes of what some have been calling a silent holocaust, killing upwards of 6 million people and involving militia groups from all over the region, many backed directly by the US, France, and the UK so as to secure access to those minerals.

So, Eugene, could you fill out this context a little bit more about what’s happening right now in the Congo, and why it’s bubbling up specifically right now in some alternative and social media platforms?

Eugene Puryear: Yeah, you know, I think it’s a great question. And, you know, this is a perennial issue. And you’re 100 percent correct. Since 1996, Congo has been locked in essentially what you could call a civil war, but it’s a multi sided civil war. And, you know, it flares up, it flares down, but it’s been very consistent, you know, since that time.

And I think people are pointing to this issue now because it’s one of the perennial, under-discussed issues. I mean, more people have died in this war than in many of the large wars we talk about all the time in the context of world history. But of course, most of those wars involve Europe and the United States. So it also speaks to how Africa is often erased.

But right now, what we’re seeing in Congo, is the continuation of a flare up in this long conflict that started about a year ago, roughly. And that is the ongoing offensives by a rebel group that’s backed by Rwanda that’s known as M23.

So to just take one step back for people to understand a little bit, and I thought you gave great framing, you know, there’s $24 trillion of wealth in the ground in DRC. So this is a highly sought after area. And if you control territory in DRC, you can make a lot of money. So for many years, people probably know, especially people maybe who’ve seen the movie Ali about Muhammad Ali, the leader was a guy named Mobutu Sese Seko. I won’t get into that now, but he falls in 1997, and really, since then, the country has been in this state of sort of semi Balkanization.

It’s a huge, vast country. I mean, almost all of Western Europe could fit in DRC. And so once this sort of central governing authority, which was, it was one man rule kind of situation, breaks down, you get sort of a free for all in Congo.

And so over the years, a lot of different things have happened, but they basically boil down to this. The countries that surround Congo: Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, especially, but also others, Angola, different countries, Zimbabwe, which doesn’t border on them as close, different countries have at different times intervened to support different actors on the ground in Congo who they felt could help secure their access to the mineral resources of Congo, which means that on the ground in DRC, a number of armed groups emerged backed by these various states to attempt to seize different territory to be able to get hold of this first step in this massive supply chain for these minerals, which are only becoming bigger because a lot of them are used in electric vehicles.

But also on the same token, you’ve had groups of villagers based on ethnicity, based on area, based on different things that have also formed their own armed groups to fight back against these other armed groups that are mainly being backed by the neighboring countries. And then you have the various governments of Congo who at different times have been allied with different elements.

So in the eastern part of DRC, especially, which is where the most mineral rich land is, you’ve got all these different groups that are fighting and different pieces like that. And about a year ago, this sort of stasis or equilibrium that was sort of introduced after the last election in 2018 broke down when M23, which is backed by Rwanda, launched a big operation into the Congo and that’s destabilized things. They’ve seized a lot of territory.

Countries from all over East Africa, the United Nations are in there claiming to be peacekeepers, but basically that’s what we’re seeing is another flare up in this attempt by various actors to control territory in the Congo in order to put themselves in the pole position to have at least some role in exploiting this $24 trillion worth of resources.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah. Wow. Thank you for that important context. And I know that we’ve discussed before the African Union, and I’m curious because it seems like a potential step would be to say, okay, well, how could this potentially benefit a lot of the African continent as opposed to, you know, it getting extracted and then as imperialism does take it to Europe and the United States. What is the African Union stance on this or what are their actions right now?

Eugene Puryear: That’s a really important question. I would say the African Union is basically split, and it’s split on the basis of the two most relevant regional blocks of which DRC is a part.

One, and the principal one in this situation is the East African community of which Kenya really is the leading country, but Uganda, other East African countries are involved, and then the other which there is somewhat opposed to each other is what’s known as SADC, the Southern African Development Community, which is all the countries basically south of DRC in Southern Africa: South Africa, Angola, Tanzania, Mozambique.

And both of those entities have different views basically on how the conflict should be resolved. And they have their own relationships with the government of DRC about that issue exactly. So the AU is split in a major way.

Now the East African Community Forces which have been there, there’s a few thousand of them, they’re allegedly keeping the peace. Most people in DRC are very opposed to those forces being there because they think they’re not there to keep the peace. They’re actually just there to do what I said, to carve up the country.

This is the big phrase in DRC is the balkanization of DRC and the Congolese government has now asked them to leave along with the United Nations force, which many people also felt in Congo was playing the same role. So they’ve actually been asked to leave the country.

Now SADC has a longer history here. They are very supportive of the government. The president of Congo is a guy named Felix Tshisekedi. They’ve been supportive of the last couple governments, and they personally view both what’s happening with the East African community and the general situation as bad for Congo if the country breaks apart. So they’ve tended to come in to back whoever the central government is to try to back their play to have total control over the Congo.

So you’ve got all these powerful African countries that have different views about how the things should be resolved, but they all have a similar discourse. And I’m glad you brought up the issue of African unity because they all do this in the basis of African unity.

The Congolese government says we’re doing this because we want to unite our country, keep it from being broken apart and by making it a stronger country, we can normalize the relationships, especially with foreign actors in order to get more money from mineral resources.

SADC says, yes, same thing. This is why we need to keep the country together. The East African community countries say, well, we all border the Congo. All the minerals that are coming out of there are mainly coming through our countries to go to overall ports. The economies are deeply intertwined with one another. So basically, Eastern Congo should be kind of a free zone that is basically managed by us, and by our militaries because that will advance Pan African unity.

So you have all these people who are trying to use the framework and the phraseology of Pan African unity to hide the fact that what they’re really trying to do is determine who’s going to be the top dog in terms of moving out these mineral resources and who’s going to be the interlocutor with the major international companies and also the major international powers in order to do that.

And unfortunately, because of that, the sort of African governing mechanism, this idea of the AU of African solutions to African problems, silencing the guns in Africa. These are two prominent AU initiatives to try to resolve all the problems that exist in Africa have basically become null and void because there’s such a disagreement between powerful African countries about how to address this issue.

And none of those really are addressing the civil society of the DRC, which has been rising up, and in the Eastern part of the DRC, there’s military rules. So it’s, you know, a hundred people about two months ago were massacred protesting the UN presence, but people have still been striking.

There’s a lot of strikes because it doesn’t require you to come out on the street. People just shut down the economy. And what you’re hearing from the street from the people who are the most affected is that they do want to see a lot of these foreign forces leave. And they do feel that Congo should control its own territory, should have one military, and it should do that.

But they’re also raising a lot of issues about the Congolese government and saying that the military also, though, acts in a way that reinforces the negative aspects of the pit mining, the terrible conditions for workers, the poverty wages that are being paid.

And so there needs to be a much greater focus on development, and a lot of that is being left out because civil society as non state actors are not being brought to the table. They are to some degree, but they’re not really being brought to the table in a real way.

Eleanor Goldfield: And I’d like to talk a little bit more about that because not too long ago I spoke with Dr. Lagoke about what’s happening in Western Africa and this collective casting off of imperialist power, and I was wondering how much do you feel folks on the ground in Congo are looking to that and using similar tactics, and also how does that play into Congo as it stands right now, as you said, a huge nation, and it’s a nation that has been carved by European powers, just like we see Africa was carved in the late 1800s by European powers. There were no African nations that were actually invited to this table.

So how much of this is also a question of well, is keeping it together really a perpetuation of imperialism in keeping those lines? How do people feel about that? And the collective, it seems like the African spread of casting off imperialist powers in general.

Eugene Puryear: I think it’s a, it’s an interesting question and a complex one, and I think what we see, to speak to the first question, in DRC, really on all sides, you see a lot of support for what’s happening in the Sahel, happening in West Africa. Obviously French is the lingua franca of the DRC because Belgium, of course, was the colonial power.

So even though they’re not in the CFA Franc Zone or anything like that, I think people still feel a lot of kinship with what’s happening in West Africa, and they can see and feel that this is, you know, it’s contradictory, but in many ways, at least a step forward of Africans finally starting to say, we’re going to reject the tutelage of the West, and we’re going to make our own decisions.

Now, whether or not that works out, we’ll have to see how it all plays out. Whether or not, you know, what is motivating different people: is it pure? Is it opportunistic? All of that’s going to work itself out. But at the very least it’s saying like, okay, at this stage in the game, we’re not going to just be told who our partners are. We’re not going to be told what rules we should have around mining.

And I think you can see a similar groundswell inside of DRC, which is honestly exactly why you see president Tshisekedi making a big play now. It’s not fully cosmetic, but I would say it’s mainly cosmetic of actually addressing exactly this issue and saying, we’re trying to bring in more mineral wealth, we’re trying to rewrite the agreements with these different companies.

Because I think he feels like most African leaders that what’s happened in the Sahel could easily happen to him if you’re not able to deliver some basic resources. And I think most Africans in DRC and really everywhere I’ve been, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Africa, Ghana, you pretty much hear the same thing.

I think everyone has a pretty good sense that there is no way to lift African countries out of poverty without greater African unity. I mean, there’s just, there’s so many different issues to it. I mean, first and foremost, the ethnic issues that underpins so many of these conflicts, including Eastern DRC, which has a lot of hangover from what happened in Rwanda in the mid 1990s when you have people from the same ethnic group, and this is all over Africa, living on two sides of basically made up borders, you have differences between pastoralists, between farmers, a lot of the problems just can’t be resolved in a strictly national context. So I think people see on that sense.

And then the different African countries are endowed with so many different resources. It’s obviously a continent that has huge human resources, the youngest continent on earth, 70 percent of people under the age of 35, maybe even 30, it’s unbelievable really how young the continent is.

So, huge human resources that people have to work together, but I think, and this has been sort of the perennial question in a way, of the Pan African movement since the formation of the OAU in 1963 is how do you get there?

What happens in a lot of times is you’ll have in one situation, you know, predatory powers from the outside, try to exploit an issue. So the people themselves want to assert the sovereignty of their nation in order to push back those predatory powers, but they actually want greater links with the peoples of those places.

And so I think really, the question that is arising now is how to start from a commercial economic perspective to open up the boundaries to get rid of the tariffs and the different taxes and the different things like that to at least make the trade and the intercourse between peoples a little bit easier to try to create an underpinning.

And I think you see this, if you look at a place like Goma, places like that, a huge amount of trade is happening with Rwanda. So even though DRC and Rwanda are constantly at odds, even though they’re funding M23, you can find a Congolese who is against M23, is angry at Rwanda for funding them, but is still going to try to go across the border to trade with the people who are over there in Rwanda.

So how can those people to people ties be strengthened, I think is the big question of Pan African unity, because the sort of nation to nation struggle is so variegated based on who’s ruling which nation, and like, do they have a Pan African vision, or are they just promoting a reactionary reality? And sometimes that flips back and forth in the same country over a short period of time.

So I think the question a lot of people are asking is how do social movements, trade unions, trade associations, commercial transactions, how do we strengthen that in a much more solid way? Because that’s really the underpinning to a greater political conversation about African unity.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m also curious with regards, you know, you saying that they’d go over the border to trade and that sort of perspective, because we see now that the U.S. empire is in decline and BRICS is on the up, the rise of a multipolar world.

And so, how much does that play into moves and and organizing that you see happening in places like Congo with regards to casting off imperialism, and then also still wanting to trade and work with entities like Russia and China, and of course potentially Europe as well without engaging in the classic imperialist relationship?

Eugene Puryear: Yeah, well, this is a huge issue in DRC, and you know, it’s become a big issue because China obviously is arguably the world’s largest economy, second largest economy, and it’s one of the major players in mining, and most of the minerals that are leaving out of there are leaving from Chinese companies.

Now, you know, the way the economy works, a lot of this stuff has ended up in Apple phones and things like that, so it’s not strictly that, but the West has become very afraid of China’s role in D.R.C, and also Russia, which has been a big undercurrent recently because there is a faction inside the government of D.R.C. that very much wants to work with Russia around security issues, and that has freaked them out.

So if people can remember when Blinken went to D.R.C., and how they’ve announced this thing at the Africa Summit of some DRC, Zambia, U.S. cobalt mining deal or whatever. It’s very loose and very vague, but they have started some big company backed by, I think, Bill Gates to mine.

A lot of that is because they’re very concerned about losing their pole position in terms of the sort of first step of minerals they view as critical for a green economy in the 21st century. So this is becoming a much bigger issue.

I think in DRC, it’s interesting. I mean, there’s a discourse that has been raised, a lot of it coming from the government with a lot of criticism of China and the way that they’ve done things, but there’s another discourse that’s competing with that that’s saying that the criticism of China is really the government trying to cover up for their own mistakes and not being able to actually capitalize on these deals in the correct way.

I think there’s probably a little bit of truth to both things. I mean, I think a lot of these Chinese companies are acting unscrupulously, quite frankly, but I do think that the government totally controls the environment around these companies, and the military is like the enforcer of the economic realities of these areas with these terrible photos people have seen of people mining in these pits and all of that. So if they wanted to address some of this they could.

But the reality is the government leaders, the military leaders are getting a pretty penny by collaborating as a part of the process.

So the real conversation I think we’re seeing now is sort of twofold. On the one hand, I think there is a strong conversation inside of Congo amongst the activists who are most concerned about these issues, especially mining issues, of how do you establish a greater sovereign infrastructure inside of DRC with clear mining rules, clear worker rights, and clear rules about how much money is going to be extracted by foreign companies versus the Congo.

And I think that is an ongoing conversation and an important one and one that’s happening all over the continent. It’s happening in Zimbabwe. It’s happening in Ethiopia. There’s a lot of moves around how you can create more cooperative based miners so that these smaller artisan miners can pool their resources, actually buy the actual equipment, put themselves in a position where they can make real deals with real actors and assert their own rights and pieces like that.

So we’re seeing, you know, that activity happening as well, which is overlaid on the geopolitical space. Because realistically, the thing you see about China is, in many ways China needs Africa as much as Africa needs China. And I think that’s the part of the story that a lot of people don’t talk about.

So when the discourse was coming out from the government of DRC that China’s exploiting DRC and they need to do more, that China just started saying, okay, yes, we will do more. They envi, they invited Tshisekedi there, they start resigning deals, they’re pledging more money for hospitals, for roads, for different things like that, the opposite of what the US would ever do.

And so I think there is a subset of people in DRC and really the whole continent who feel like if we could get better control of our own resources, we can definitely deal with China and we can make a deal with them that would be better for us than the other deals, which means that we can play them off against every other player, which means we can improve the broader environment and get the most out of our mineral resources.

And that is the thing that the U.S. is terrified within Congo because before they’ve had pretty much a total free run. They have a lot of control over the government of Congo. You know, Tshisekedi actually cancelled his appearance at the Russia Africa summit this year at the last second, most people say, because he was trying to make sure the U.S. didn’t think that he was moving into like a quote unquote Russian camp and wanted to show he was open to them and that he loves the West, blah, blah, blah, so on and so forth, very close ties to China, very close ties to Belgium.

And so they’ve pretty much for years until, you know, the early to mid 2000s had total control of the economy of Congo. It’s kind of gotten away from them. It doesn’t seem like they were really fully paying attention to it for a while. And now I think they realize, Oh, wait a second. If Congo gets itself together politically and they start aligning with China, then they’re going to have a stranglehold on our mineral resources. They consider them their mineral resources, even though they’re Congolese. And if they start working with Russia, then we won’t have the military control over them. And that means it’s a wild card. And that means our companies will have to basically deal with these angry Africans who want their money, the Chinese who are trying to get their money, and we’re not going to be able to necessarily stop them militarily, and that could be a disaster. So it’s all unfolding in a lot of different ways.

If you follow the diplomatic intrigue of Kinshasa, the capital, there’s a lot of intrigue going on right now in DRC and lots of rumors. UAE also a big player there. UAE, of course, is the largest purveyor of gold on earth, the biggest gold markets.

And so ultimately there’s a lot of different changing of hands and backroom deals and different pieces going on. But I think when you go to the average Congolese, especially in the mineral resources area, the main thing they want is no matter who is there doing the mining for them to follow by some serious rules, including environmental rules, because the using of mercury, which is major for mining and other things has massively poisoned many of these areas as well. So from an environmental level, from workers rights level, I think that’s what you’re hearing from sort of the masses of people is a need to actually address these issues so that they can make a livelihood and not die at 32 of being crushed in a mine or having cancer from mercury.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah. And of course, as I’ve read a lot of the people mining, just like they were in this country, are children. And so this is a further need to incorporate workers rights and basic human rights really.

And I’m curious, I mean, you were talking about M23 and how they’re backed by Rwanda. And of course, the way my brain works, I’m like, Rwanda? And question mark the US? I just, I can’t help but that being the next question.

So how many of these militias or military groups that are all clashing, how many of them are backed by, either by proxy or directly, a Western power that’s vying for that space?

Eugene Puryear: I would say a good number of them. I mean, certainly the M23 and the groups that are backed by Rwanda. I mean, Uganda is playing a big role. It’s different than Rwanda because Uganda has an agreement with the government of DRC to wage a joint war against two groups, one ADF that claims to be tied to ISIS, and another one Codeco that claims a lot of things, but it’s really mainly known for being really, really brutal.

And so that is not seen as like negatively in a lot of the international context because it’s like technically legal, but I think when you look at groups that are aligned with them, you know, Uganda, whatever its pretensions to be, you know, non aligned, tends to align much more with the West and to be more in the Western camp.

And I think Rwanda 100 percent is in the Western camp. Always has been since the rise of the RPF, Rwandan Patriotic Front governments. You know, in many, it’s one of these things that if you ask them, the RPF cadres, they will swear up and down they’re not tied to the West. But at the end of the day, when you really look at the realities of it, they have been instrumentalized as a major force for Western powers.

And some people actually call Rwanda the Israel of Africa, because they’ve kind of been seen as a very reliable pro Western state that can help, you know, keep the things in that region within a realm that the West is comfortable with.

Now, you know, there are some differences between the West and Rwanda over this, and it’s unclear how deep they are. The U.S. and France have been, well really more the U.S. less France have been very critical of Rwanda and saying you have to stop this. You shouldn’t be backing M23, but on the same token, they’re still working with Rwanda in a range of different areas.

So depending on who you ask, it’s maybe kind of like a small disagreement. Others are saying that it’s more, a more serious breach. There’s more criticism of the West coming out of Rwanda in the past like year or so because of this criticism. And so, you know, where that’s going, I don’t know exactly.

Obviously the West really wants to keep Tshisekedi in their column against China and against Russia. So they’re willing to verbally be very critical of Rwanda. But, you know, financially, for instance, they’re also playing a role in backing Rwanda as the new kind of security contractor all across Africa. You know, it’s the French who are paying for the Rwandans to be in Mozambique, and so on and so forth.

So it’s an interesting reality there. But I do think that we can see that the West in many ways is kind of backing both sides against the middle. Because on the one hand, they’re for Rwanda. They also have a good relationship with Kenya. They’ve said they’re in favor of the EAC force that Kenya has put forward that Congolese people hate. They’re saying they’re also for Tshisekedi.

So I think in many ways, the U.S. is really trying to be over top of the board and move all the pieces. And I think France is the same way. It’s, you know, typical really of imperialism, especially French imperialism. Whoever is the opposition of the day is living in Paris. Then they go back to the country and they switch places with the other people.

And I think this is very much that kind of situation where they’re looking, okay, how do we maneuver all these different pieces, kind of play one side off against each other to make sure at the end of the day, we still have control.

And there are some who believe that really the Western powers think they benefit the most from chaos, from not having strong states, and they prefer to have Rwanda, DRC, Burundi, Uganda, always fighting both each other and also fighting internally these various armed groups and insurgencies and so on and so forth, because the minerals keep flowing no matter what.

And so without any strong states, all the minerals are flowing out, the money is still being made, but there’s no one who can make any strong legitimate claim on that, the rights to that mineral wealth that could potentially upend and change the reality for the multinational corporations.

Eleanor Goldfield: So, kind of wrapping up here, I know nobody has a crystal ball, but I always try to think of what, not only what we can do as people who live in the U.S., but also what we should be looking for, because as you mentioned, Tshisekedi is trying to make sure that he appeases The West, but also is looking at the Sahel and being like, I don’t want that to happen to me.

So do you feel that there is hope that he might just be the leader that folks in Congo are looking for? And if so, does that place him as so many in Africa have experienced before with a giant target on his head because he’s not willing to play the Western imperialist’s game?

Eugene Puryear: I think, sadly, it’s unlikely. His partisans, I’m sure, would be upset that I said that. But I don’t think so.

And you know, there’s elections that are coming up, maybe in December of this year, could get pushed into 2024, and you can already see that, you know, Tshisekedi, first and foremost, kind of came into, it doesn’t really seem like he won the election, let me put it to you like that.

Almost everyone else thinks another person who’s now running again won the election, but nonetheless, through various politics, he was able to get in there. And I think many people feel that, you know, he more or less is just another one of the leaders of Congo who can talk a great game. I mean, Mobutu could talk a great game, but who really, at the end of the day, is more concerned with the traditional desires of the Congolese elite, which is to just, you know, skim the cream off the top.

I think Tshisekedi is a little bit better than that in my imagination. I think that he has some pretensions to do a little bit more, but that’s only because it’s impossible to not do a little bit more, and stay in power from my point of view, given what we’ve seen in the Sahel, but I think we’re getting ready, sadly, probably to enter into another period of political turmoil around this issue of the elections, where I don’t think any of the players who are really involved seem to have the same type of social vision as what’s coming, from say, Ibrahim Traore and Burkina Faso, or if we look back to even the history of someone like Patrice Lumumba, we’re not really seeing that kind of discourse.

We’re seeing vaguely developmentalist discourse still generally being tied to the West, a desire, it seems, not to make bold moves to really sort of break with the status quo, and ultimately kind of a floundering and slight balkanization or sort of adhering to this balkanization of the country, which is worse.

So I think in some ways, if you look at Tshisekedi’s policies, it does represent in many ways the fact that the Congolese street, if you will, is having some success and that no one thinks they could be president without talking about roads, schools, hospitals, and to be seen to be building some of them to be renegotiating mining deals and so on and so forth, but beyond sort of those kind of most basic moves in that direction, it doesn’t really seem as substantive as it potentially could be.

And I think we’ll continue to see that. I always hope to be surprised, but I suspect that the DRC is going to be in, sadly, another round of political turmoil until someone really emerges who can unite the people around an agenda to really radically change.

And I don’t know if that’s going to come from anyone in the traditional political class, Tshisekedi comes from the political class, Jean Pierre Bemba who now is working with him, you know, Martin Fayulu, all the people who are, they’re all contending with one another, but they all basically come from the same place, which is either the elite under Mobutu or the elite who are in the opposition, living in Europe, some of which started working with Mobutu in the nineties. And I think we need a cleaner break from that reality.

And there’s a lot of other players and forces that are going to be there too, as well. So it’s going to be an important country to watch, an important issue to watch. I think what happens in the December election is going to be vastly consequential for the African continent.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah. And so as you were talking, I just thought of one more thing to take us out here, which is I mean, I’m talking to you on an instrument that requires those rare earth minerals, right?

Like we in the West grow up basically using the wealth of Africa in order to do our work and our play and everything else.

And I’m curious if you could talk briefly about why that’s important to make those connections, because, you know, as I like to say, imperialism is also a home game.

Why is it important to take notice of what’s going on in DRC and how that links to our struggles here at home with regards to workers rights or the environment or anything else?

Eugene Puryear: I think that’s a great question. And I think it speaks to the fundamental dishonesty of many of these big corporate giants in the West about what they’re doing.

I mean, every company that’s getting cobalt, nickel or whatever out of DRC, they’re all linked up to these organizations that are securing minerals with human rights, all of that is totally fake.

And so you have, you know, Apple, Ford, General Motors, Nokia, whoever, anyone who’s using any of these batteries or anything like that, especially batteries when we’re talking about DRC, that essentially you are directly tied into the the exploitation of Congolese workers, but you’re also directly tied into your exploitation as a worker by the same companies.

I mean, you look at what’s happening with the auto workers, look at the average person working at an Apple store. I mean, those people are not being helped by the huge trillions and billions of dollars that are being generated by these corporations.

So I think it’s a question of who really controls the wealth of our society, who really controls the resources, and that’s the real connection. Like, should the people in DRC get the vast majority of wealth from anything that’s taken out of their country? Absolutely. Should the workers who put together the parts for all of these things that we buy get the vast majority of wealth that’s created from the sale of those products?

And so it’s, you know, part of the same supply chain, but asking really the same question. And I think when you start to look at the interest of poor and working class people, then the interests start to align to a much greater degree, because we don’t really have an interest in making Tim Cook any richer. So it’s really no skin off of our back if more of the wealth is going to people in Congo, as it doesn’t hurt them if more of the wealth is going to the workers at the Apple store.

And perhaps if we were thinking more about the workers in Congo and the workers at the Apple store, we could be able to have some sort of equitable trade relationship, because when you talk to people in DRC who are in this area, they don’t want mining to stop per se, although, you know, there are many people who would like to do other things and that’s why they want education, more access to resources.

They just want, if there’s going to be trade for it to actually be fair and to benefit them. So it’s a win win proposition, but we can’t have a win win proposition when, you know, we’re actually talking about these big bosses of these big corporations rather than the relations between working class people between the two different countries.

Eleanor Goldfield: Absolutely. Thank you, Eugene. That is a brilliant way to wrap it up. Really appreciate you taking the time to come on the show and to give us so much important information about what’s going on in DRC. Appreciate it.

Eugene Puryear: Right on. Thanks for having me.

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Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Giulia Messmer

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Eleanor Goldfield: Thanks everyone for joining us again at the Project Censored radio show. I’m your co host, Eleanor Goldfield, and we’re very glad right now to be joined by Giulia Messmer, who’s a spokesperson with Sea Watch, also works on the media team, and has been involved in anti racist and anti fascist struggles since 2015.

Giulia, thanks so much for joining us.

Giulia Messmer: Thanks for the invitation.

Eleanor Goldfield: So I want to start with some language, actually, because I find language fascinating in terms of how we think about things. And I remember reading, one of the first things I read over at Sea Watch was something that talked about Europe’s reception crisis.

And I thought the framing of that was really interesting versus immigration crisis or, you know, illegal immigration crisis or something like that. Can you talk a little bit about why you frame it as a reception crisis?

Giulia Messmer: Of course. So, I mean, for us, the situation at the European external borders, meaning also in the central Mediterranean, is definitely politically created.

It’s nothing that occurs naturally or that just comes up or is a coincidence, but it’s definitely out of a political will not to change anything or to prevent people from coming to the European Union, and to claim their natural and human rights to claim asylum. So this is why we phrase it as a crisis of reception, a crisis of the European border regime, and not as so called refugee crisis, because it’s just factually not.

Eleanor Goldfield: Right. And I’m curious, because it’s a reception crisis, Sea Watch works to save people in the Mediterranean, but what happens after you rescue them?

I mean, Europe is increasingly hostile to people coming into Europe. So where do you take them?

Giulia Messmer: Yeah, so Sea Watch is a sea rescue organization. I don’t know if everybody knows about what we’re doing.

So we have two ships currently operative and also two airplanes. So what we do is actively try to rescue people from distress at sea, but also trying to fly over the central Mediterranean and observe and monitor human rights violations, as well as find cases of distress. And then, of course, communicate to the competent authorities and any ship in vicinity.

So when we rescue people out of distress, we of course go, and we want to go to the nearest port of safety, which means that state authorities have to allocate the nearest port and the nearest suitable port of safety for ships that just rescued people in distress at sea. The situation at the moment is that Italy really tries to harshly criminalize and hinder civil sea rescue and therefore also migration.

So what Italy is doing at the moment is allocating ports that are hundreds and hundreds kilometers away often or hours, also for little or smaller ships that rescue people. So for example, we have a ship called Aurora, and it’s like 14. 5 m long, so really not that big. And when we rescue people, sometimes 50 sometimes 60 sometimes 70 people, it means that we need to find a port and we need to go to a port as soon as possible because the situation on the ship is often like people are sitting super close together. There’s not much space to be, to sleep, to live and to survive.

So, we of course try to be as fast as possible, but with these political games it’s often really hard to be as fast as we usually could be going to Lampedusa, for example, which would for us, and our like area of operation be the closest port.

And when then people can disembark safely, they are taken to camps in Italy, to reception centers, and then also redistributed over the whole country. We at Sea Watch, we don’t follow or we don’t work on or in reception centers itself. So, we don’t have usually insights on where people go in the end, where they are allocated and where they are distributed to. We really concentrate on rescuing people at sea only.

Eleanor Goldfield: Of course. I mean, that’s plenty to do. The Mediterranean is not exactly a small area.

And I’d like to get into a specific story that, I mean, to be perfectly honest, a lot of these stories don’t reach us in the United States, but this one did.

Back in June, more than 600 refugees died when their boat capsized several hours after sending out distress signals, which once received by Greek officials led to what many have called the murder of these people by Greek officials who left them to die after also attempting to tow the boat, which then caused it to capsize.

Now, of course, this is just one story of hundreds like it. And on the Sea Watch site, you point out that more than 27,000 people have died in the Mediterranean since 2013, which is staggering. And, on your report of this incident, there’s an image which reads, the Mediterranean isn’t just a graveyard, it’s a crime scene.

And so I’m curious, when these distress signals are sent out, when there’s evidence of a boat needing help, is there any official European rescue support? And what happens, for instance, if the Coast Guard of Italy or Greece, what do they do when they see that this is happening?

Is there any kind of collaboration that you get from these official European entities?

Giulia Messmer: So when there’s a distress case at sea and when there’s like distress signal either because, like our airplane, for example, found a distress case, then communication needs to be to or needs to go to state authorities, of course, because they are, or they have the duty to coordinate any kind of rescue.

So sea rescue at the European external borders is a state duty. So these state authorities, they are called rescue coordination centers and every state with access to the sea needs to have one, and they are really obliged to then coordinate.

That means communicating to ships that are in vicinity of the case, and then see how these people in distress can be rescued as fast as possible.

But of course, over the Mediterranean, there’s not only our airplane that operates, but also for example, Frontex airplanes. So Frontex is the so-called Coast Guard and Border Protection Agency of the European Union.

And they also monitor the central Mediterranean Sea, for example. So when normally when they fly over the Mediterranean with drones, for example, they operate or with airplanes, then they are also obliged to send communications to all boats in vicinity of a distress case, but also to state authorities. But what we witness is that often this communication is not handled correctly, is intentionally not done.

And this is why we definitely see a complicity or we point to a complicity of state actors, but also Frontex, for distress cases, for drownings.

And this is why we are speak of crimes against humanity, even, so far in the Mediterranean, but also state crimes in total. And this is why people are not only drowning by coincidence, but European states, are letting people drown on purpose in the Mediterranean. And this is, of course, not a single case at the European or external borders, but if we also look to the eastern borders in the European Union, there’s also a lot of violence going on: pushbacks, pullbacks, to hinder people coming into the European Union. So it, this is really no coincidence.

And I mean, in the United States, there’s also huge discussions now about the border with Mexico, for example, where we see the same thing. And this is why we always have to compare as well and see how states are dealing with borders and how border regimes are actually set up to protect nation states, and not people.

Eleanor Goldfield: Absolutely. And I want to get in to that in a moment, but I first want to highlight, because you mentioned these, crimes against humanity and clearly, these nation states are not facing any kind of legal repercussions for perpetuating these crimes against humanity, yet folks at Sea Watch and other rescue coordinators have faced charges.

Can you talk a little bit about that?

Giulia Messmer: When talking about criminalization, we of course have to point out the huge difference in resources of states trying to criminalize search and rescue actors, trying to criminalize activists that help people on the move to arrive safely. And then on the other side, having NGOs that are financed by donations of civil society, mostly, only, and of course, don’t have the resources to counteract states and crimes against humanity.

So, Sea Watch, and an organization based in Berlin, ECCHR, we try to actually go in, in front of the International Criminal Court to point to exactly that, to point to that human rights violations are happening on a large scale basis in the central Mediterranean sea, and that these constitutes crimes against humanity and that states need to be taken accountable.

So on the other side, talking about criminalization against NGOs, search and rescue actors, activists. Of course, the situation in Greece is horrendous when it comes to criminalization, but also Italy tries to persecute individual people.

But this is, of course, also a means to criminalize migration in the end. So we are one step in between criminalizing migration, criminalizing people on the move. And this can also be observed by law and changes in legislation that have been done after huge shipwrecks caused by states.

But then what it has led to, for example, in Italy, there was a shipwreck in February, I believe, the so called Cutro shipwreck. And after this Cutro shipwreck, the sentences for so called boat drivers were leveled up. So boat drivers are people that are themselves on boats in distress that steer the boats and often they are forced or don’t have any other economical financial means to come to the European Union, and then are criminalized on the basis that they steered the boat to flee, and to claim their actual right to claim asylum.

And, what we see is now a huge wave of increased sentences against boat drivers. It even comes that far, that several months ago, a father was charged for the murder of his son because his son died in the Mediterranean while crossing.

So, we really… When we talk about criminalization, we really, really have to talk about criminalization of people on the move because it doesn’t receive attention. Also because of course, racial discrimination and racial bias.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely. And, and so with that, drawing connections here. Right around the same time that the boat capsized in June, the Council of the European Union agreed on reform of the Common European Asylum System, CEAS which further restricted access to asylum in Europe.

And here in the United States, many people, including children in the recent months, have died trying to cross the Rio Grande, that’s the river between Mexico and the United States, because the governor of Texas has installed literal floating barbed wire which essentially acts as floating death traps for those trying to cross.

And border agents have also been ordered to not rescue people if they see them drowning or struggling, even with regards to children.

So basically, what similarities do you see in the fights based on what you’re experiencing in Europe and what you see happening here in the United States as well?

Giulia Messmer: I really believe it’s about so called border protection in terms of protecting states, state territory, and nation states in the end. And this is not only to be seen now in Europe and in the US, but also when looking at Australia, for example, then we see a state that actively puts people in prison camps, not even on their own territory, but on a separate island, to hinder, to criminalize, to really put people in even another space, another location to not having to deal with them, but also to basically violently halt migration in the end.

And, this happening around the world also just like points to an understanding of migration, not as part of humanity as it always was, but as something that states can stop. And this is also a belief I really don’t understand because people will always find their way.

It’s a question of how dangerous and how violent are we making passage for people to find security in the end. And I mean, activists around the globe are calling for safe and legal passages, not only from North Africa to the European Union or to Europe, but also between Mexico and the US and still there’s so much struggle, there’s so much fight and still we’re not even close to having it done.

So I’d say it’s similar in actions when it comes to how states try to criminalize and violently halt migration.

Eleanor Goldfield: Right, and I’m also curious your perspective on the role of these nation states in perpetuating it, like, in the United States we talk, we being activists, we talk quite a bit about how, well, if you wanted to stop migration, then stop destroying the countries from which they come. You know, people don’t migrate because life is great at home.

They migrate because they don’t have a choice. And the United States, of course, as the world’s largest empire, has a huge role in perpetuating the dangerous situations and violent situations that people flee from.

What does that look like in Europe in terms of European nation states perpetuating violence from which people flee?

Giulia Messmer: I mean, looking at the history of colonialism now, Europe plays a huge part, the biggest part, in colonial history. And this is what we also see today.

You know, when talking about colonialism, we can’t talk about something that was in the past, and it is not happening now. New colonial structures are still perpetuated by states through economical means, through so called development help, through contracts and agreements with authoritarian states, like, for example, Tunisia, but also support for the so called Libyan Coast Guard, to stop migration to the European Union.

So when looking at the central Mediterranean, we really also have to look at those agreements at those corporations. Now also this year, especially with Tunisia, and this not to altruistically kind of help in quotation marks, countries in North Africa, but to really have some kind of self purpose out of it.

So when talking about Tunisia, like in the beginning of the year, the president started a hugely racist campaign with the racist speech given by him. And since then, especially people on the move from the sub Saharan region, especially black people on the move are faced with such a wave of violence, of criminalization, of discrimination, of forced disappearances by state authorities, by violence from the civil society.

And this is why we also see an increase of a movement from Tunisia to the European Union, not only by people on the move from sub Saharan region, but also by Tunisian citizens that can’t stay in their country anymore because it just gets too dangerous.

So, when we then see that, for example, the German government and German police are trained, are given trainings to Tunisia, to the coast guard, are given technical equipment, then we need to ask ourselves, why is this happening? What is the purpose behind it? Is it really to support people on the move?

Or is it by coincidence to stop migration to the European Union?

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely. It reminds me of what’s what’s called the deadly exchange here, which is the the exchange of information and tools via the the IDF and Israeli forces to police departments here in the United States, including the Border Patrol .

So I’m curious, because of your experiences here, what are your thoughts for the future? I mean, I don’t see the rise of fascism abating in the United States or in Europe, really.

Do you foresee your work becoming more and more difficult and more and more cracked down on by the judicial systems in Europe?

Giulia Messmer: I mean, we definitely see a huge effort to hinder civil sea rescue in the last couple of years. We see state authorities not communicating anymore on the Mediterranean with civil sea rescue.

So, for example, Malta, a state that has been communicating a couple of years before, does not do it with civil search and rescue actors anymore at all.

What Malta actually does is often try to equip distress cases with food, with fuel and with water so they make their way on their own to the Italian search and rescue zones.

Search and rescue zones in general are the zones and the areas on the Mediterranean sea that different states are responsible for.

So we have a Maltese search and rescue zone where Maltese authorities need to coordinate, are obliged to coordinate by international law, but when Maltese authorities try to hand out resources to boats that then they make it to the Italian search rescues, then we clearly see a divergence of responsibility or a complete ignorance to responsibility, not having to rescue the people and bring them back to their own country.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, it seems like if you could give people water and food and fuel, then you could just take care of them in general, but –

Giulia Messmer: Yeah, and also, like a distress case is not solved with this. Like, a distress case needs to be rescued immediately. It doesn’t mean that you hand out fuel and you just like let them go until they reach the Italian search and rescue zone because no one can be sure that they actually make it and people don’t actually drown.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely. So finally, wrapping up here, I’m curious what kind of advice, because it looks different based on geography and situations like that, but what kind of advice would you give to people here who are trying to protect and ensure safe passage for people into the United States from the South?

Giulia Messmer: I mean, firstly, get involved by any kinds of means. If you have the capacity at the moment to only share information on social media about the situation at the borders in the US or in Europe or in other countries, do that, talk to your family, talk to your friends, to anyone that might be even in a slightest decision making power to change or to spread information.

Then of course, organize. Like we can’t solve anything individually, but we have to act together as civil society and find our partners that can actually also influence decision making now.

And don’t only organize inside a country, because I really think this is a topic that we can’t solve nationally, but we have to work over borders transnationally because this is exactly what states are doing as well, and that fascist actors are doing as well.

So, if we don’t cooperate, if we don’t get in touch, if we don’t build movements transnationally, then I really, really think we lose. But at the same time, take care of yourself. Because I really believe if we don’t take care of ourselves, especially while working or when working around and in a topic and in a work environment that includes so much violence, it also doesn’t serve anyone in the long run.

So, yeah, also take care of your own capacities.

Eleanor Goldfield: Very, very well put. Thank you.

Giulia, where can folks connect with what Sea Watch does the best?

Giulia Messmer: You can find us on any socials mostly. So we’re on TikTok, on Instagram, on Twitter or x and even on Blue Sky, if you heard of that as well, the alternative to x.

And of course our website, which is And I think if you type in sea watch on Instagram or TikTok, you’ll find us as well.

Eleanor Goldfield: Okay, wonderful. Thank you so much for taking the time. I appreciate it.

Giulia Messmer: Thank you for the conversation.

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