In the shadow of a rusting gold-mining factory here, hundreds of sweaty young men slog knee-deep in chocolate pools of sludge. Some heave mud-filled buckets up the slopes of vast open pits, while others strike gray boulders with steel mallets. They pick. Stop. Look for anything that shines. Then pick again.

The miners have gathered in this northeastern village of Congo because they believe years of runoff from the now-shuttered Belgian-built processing plant above them enriched the soil below. On an average day, a miner can unearth nuggets worth $5 to $10.

"It's a game of chance," said mud-splattered miner Jean-Claude Takinga, 29, rising from the brown pit after a backbreaking nine-hour shift that yielded gold flecks worth $20. "Once I found $800 worth and used it to buy a house. The next day you find nothing."

Until recently, this mining area was off limits, first controlled by the state-owned minerals company, then occupied by Ugandan soldiers, then passed between outlaw militias who used the mining proceeds to buy guns.

Now the foreign army is gone. The militias are lying low. And the central government has little authority in this part of the country.

Finally, villagers say, it's their turn. "This is our field now," Takinga said.

This is the closest that most Congolese have ever come to reaping the benefits of the land beneath their feet, for more than a century more curse than blessing.

One of Earth's richest sources of valuable minerals, Congo is believed to hold one-third of the world's cobalt reserves and two-thirds of its coltan, a black granite widely used in cell phones and Sony PlayStations. The nation also straddles one of the world's most lucrative copper belts and was once the leading producer of diamonds.

But the Congolese have watched helplessly as billions of dollars in minerals were systematically pillaged by foreigners and despots, beginning with 19th-century colonialists.

Belgium's King Leopold II used Congo as his colonial piggybank in the late 1800s. Beginning a few years after the country's 1960 independence, the mines funded strongman Mobutu Sese Seko's 32-year dictatorship. In 1998, Congo's envious neighbors launched a bloody four-year war, seizing key mining towns and carting away piles of the nation's natural resources.

"Congo is like the Garden of Eden," said miner Serge Utibeli, 26. "God put everything here for us. But it's also why so many outsiders come to create trouble and take it away."

Since 2003, a transitional government aided by U.N. peacekeeping troops has improved stability in some of the key northeastern mining towns.

Though rebel militias remain a threat, the lull has cleared the way for an estimated half a million Congolese to rush back to the mines, hoping to scrape together enough minerals to survive another day.

"It's probably the freest it has ever been," said Baudio Matata, 49, who has been a miner since he was a boy, starting out working for a state-owned company and then prospecting for himself in the 1980s, when Mobutu liberalized mining laws. It was easier to find gold in the 1980s, he says, but government agents usually seized large finds. Violence and war in the 1990s made mining too dangerous, and those who worked were forced to hand over profits to soldiers or rebels.

"Nowadays it's harder to find the gold, but I get to keep what I find," Matata said, waving a small plastic bag containing his day's take, worth about $6.

Nearly all the small-scale mining is still done by hand, with broken shovels, plastic buckets and homemade hammers. With little else, hundreds of villagers in a remote valley about an hour from Mongbwalu have literally moved a mountain, shovelful by shovelful, over the last two years, excavating a massive red-dirt pit 100 yards deep and 200 yards across. It takes a line of 40 men to toss buckets of dirt and rocks from the bottom of the hole to the top.

George Kubuli, 25, wearing pink pants and flip-flops as he hauls dirt, said he doesn't see much of the 50 grams of gold a day that a manager of the Lafolie mine says it can yield.

"Don't talk to him," a supervisor interrupted. "He has work to do."

About 250 miles to the south, in the pastoral highlands near Goma, boys as young as 9 help pan for minerals in the Mumba River, earning money to help their families pay primary school fees. "I've already made $10, which I used to buy a goat," said Asifiwe Barindikije, 14.

Miners there, working in teams of two or three, divert the river into short troughs built of rock and clay, where mud is sifted by hand to isolate the heavier sands containing coltan, cassiterite and manganese.

A middleman makes the arduous three-hour drive from nearby Goma twice a week to buy bags of the sand and rocks.

Faustin Habyambere, 27, said he earns about $5 a day and knows that the middleman, in turn, sells the minerals for about twice that to buyers across the border in Rwanda.

"I don't care where it goes," Habyambere said. "Before, I was a farmer, but this pays better."

The first stop for the minerals is usually neighboring Uganda or Rwanda. Uganda has few gold mines of its own, yet it has exported an average of $55 million in gold a year since 2000, according to a recent U.N. report. Likewise, tiny Rwanda exports five times as much cassiterite, a black rock used to make tin, as it claims to produce. From these two countries, the United States receives much of Congo's coltan. Brussels gets the diamonds, Switzerland the gold.

In the town of Goma, on the border with Rwanda, there's little evidence that residents benefit from mining proceeds. Roads remain covered with hardened lava from a deadly 2002 volcanic eruption, and the lack of running water forces residents to make daily treks to Lake Kivu, where they fill jerrycans and do their wash.

"These people are still being pillaged," said Kevin D'Souza, a mining engineer with resource consultant Wardell Armstrong in London. "That's the tragedy. It hasn't changed since the days of King Leopold."

Although fighting has subsided in the northeast, militias and rebel groups keep a tight grip on mining activities in some areas.

In Mongbwalu, U.N. troops set up camp this year and the mayor was reappointed, but residents know the real authority still rests with the Nationalist and Integrationist Front, or FNI, whose headquarters sits atop a hill overlooking the town.

FNI militiamen show up several times a week at the key mining spots, charging miners $1 each time the workers enter the mines and an additional $12 a week.

Few of the miners complain about the fees they are charged.

"It's natural to pay," said Jayerombi Uwechi, 24, squinting at the sun as he emerges from a day inside the partly flooded Adidi mine. "They control the area. We've always had to pay whoever's in control."

Gold miner John Alio, 27, said he's just grateful that the minerals provide him with a daily living. He said he can't imagine his country without them.

"Even if I could trade the minerals for peace, I wouldn't," Alio said. "I would never want to give them up."

A gold miner walks through a pit in Mongbwalu. For years, the area was controlled by state-owned mineral firms, then Ugandan soldiers and outlaw militias. "This is our field now," a villager said.Nearly all small-scale mining is done with broken shovels and homemade hammers. The typical miner unearths a few dollars' worth of gold each day.