Support American RadioWorks with your Amazon.com purchases
Search Amazon.com:
Keywords:
  • News/Talk
  • Music
  • Entertainment
American RadioWorksDocumentariesWorldWith This Ringhome page
The Diamond Mystique  |   Conflict Diamonds  |   Diamond Trading  |   The Democratic Diamond

PART II of With This Ring from American RadioWorks
On the Web at: http://www.americanradioworks.org/features/diamonds/sierraleoneprint.html

Conflict Diamonds in West Africa
by Deborah George

For roughly one thousand years, people thought that the gods had created diamonds only in India. But then they found them in Brazil; and in 1867, a boy named Erasmus Jackobs stumbled across a diamond on his father's farm in what would eventually become South Africa. The land was rich with diamond stones and the modern diamond rush began.

Today, miners scrape, dig and blast the earth to find diamonds on every continent except Europe and Antarctica ... But Africa is still one of the centers. And its gems have been a blessing and a curse.

Consider the nation of Sierra Leone, in West Africa. They have a bounty of diamonds. And they're at the heart of a civil war: over the last decade, the various factions have killed at least 75,000 people, and they've maimed and crippled thousands more. The fighting has driven millions of citizens from their homes.

Earlier this year, the warring sides began to negotiate peace. But the main rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), refuses to give up control over their most valuable weapon: they run the country's richest diamond mines.

Sierra Leone is blessed with fertile soilůbut its chief crop isn't cassava or groundnuts. Millions of years ago, deposits of compressed carbon formed here — miles beneath the earth. Then, subterranean volcanoes erupted, shooting diamonds to the surface. Today, you can find them sprinkled in the sand and gravel of Sierra Leone's alluvial plains.

On a hot and humid afternoon, a canoe dug out of a hollow tree trunk floats in the Sewa River. A rusty generator hums on the bank. And, unseen, below the surface, a man stands on the river bottom — scraping gravel into a bucket.

The humming generator is the machine that gives him air to breathe.

Sensei Condo says that the man beneath the river is a diamond miner like himself. He explains, "The machine has an airline directly into the river. He breathes just the way I am breathing, sitting in the river."

The man scrapes the river gravel into a bucket attached to a rope, which he pulls on twice when he wants it lifted out.

Sierra Leone has thousands of subsistence miners like these men, scraping a living out of the ground. But for years, diamonds mined by the rebels have made the really big money — an estimated 250 to 300 million dollars a year. That money has brought war and mayhem instead of development.

The Beginning of the Diamond Chain

The roads in Sierra Leone tell the story. There, the beginning of the diamond chain is also the best-paved stretch of road in the whole country. It runs between the towns of Bo and Kenema, in the heart of the country's eastern diamond fields. On Fridays and Saturdays, miners crowd into both towns to pick up supplies and negotiate with the dealers who are the next link in the diamond chain.

An American RadioWorks correspondent met with Rodney Michaels, one of those dealers. Rodney is Lebanese, like most of the diamond dealers in Sierra Leone. His great grandparents came here in the 1800s. He operates out of a tiny storefront. In his backroom office, there's an ancient air conditioner held together with duct tape and a fluorescent light pulled down low over a wooden table.

This afternoon, three men have brought in a diamond wrapped in a piece of paper. They put it on the table. Rodney takes out his glass, examines the stone and says "four — eight for me."

What he means is that for this large stone — 3.7 carats — he will offer them $4,800 U.S. dollars. It may seem like a lot but at this stage of the diamond chain, a dozen or so people will take a cut — even the paramount chief of the region.

At first, the men seem angry with Rodney's offer. One says, "I no like you!" Another has tears in his eyes. But finally, they shrug their shoulders, laugh, and accept the offer.

But the deal isn't done. Rodney says he won't buy the diamond unless they get a mining license. So they go, probably to find a miner with a license who will go in with them — for a cut, of course. These men could be rebels but according to Rodney, RUF fighters are laying low these days.

"It's a very delicate situation and you have to be careful what you say. There was a time when the peace pact was signed, the rebels were allowed to come in and sell. But now," says Rodney, "you cannot buy a diamond from someone if they don't have mining license. They need documents. The rebels are not coming to Bo and Kenema and selling their diamonds. And even if they are it will be the very smallest goods. All the big diamonds are taken to Liberia and then god only knows."

According to United Nations (UN) reports, Liberia has been the main transit point for the rebel diamonds. It's easy to figure out, experts say, since Liberia produces almost no diamonds. Watchdog groups assert that until 1998, Liberia exported six million carats a year.

Sierra Leone's Children

Some of the most intriguing information about how the rebels get their diamonds out of the country comes from Sierra Leone's children.

Near the town of Bo, there is a camp for children who have escaped from the rebels or have been released. The R.U.F. abducted thousands of children during the war. They turned most into soldiers, some they use for sex. Others slave in the diamond mines of the Kono districtů. where the biggest and most valuable stones are found. The rebels have held this area since 1997.

A young woman introduces herself in Krio, an English-based Creole. "My name Jenna Sandy, 18 years old."

Jenna Sandy was abducted as a child and spent years with the rebels. She finally escaped and made her way back home. She says besides their own mines, the rebels often sweep down on subsistence miners and rob them. And, she says she often saw visitors who arrived in small planes to do business with the rebels.

"The rebels used to say they were giving the diamonds to Poppy. Poppy is the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh," says Jenna. "So when they gather these diamonds, white people come with Poppy and in exchange, they give them food items or ammunition."

Now, the rebel leader Foday Sankoh sits in prison in the capital, Freetown. He was captured last year. And the government is trying to staunch the flow of blood diamonds with computers and sealing wax.

Every diamond that leaves the country is supposed to come through the Government Gold and Diamond Office in Freetown. It is located just behind the Bank of Sierra Leone in two cramped rooms with a few odds and ends of furniture.

Exporters come in to the Government Gold and Diamond Office with diamonds they've bought from dealers. The two men who evaluate them are Lawrence Ndoga Meyer, the director of the office; and Lemple Michel, an Israeli dealer who represents the Diamond High Council in Antwerp. Both men say they can spot possible rebel diamonds just by looking.

Michel says, "There are certain areas, you can identify from where it comes. By the quality..."

"By certain peculiarities in the diamond you can easily identify (them)." Meyers interjects, "You have an area called Pujehun — the diamonds are smooth, oily and they are shiny. In Tongo field, a rebel held area, diamonds are crinkly, they are cleaved looking. In Kono, they are smooth, good looking, good shapes, very nice colors. They fetch a premium when they go outside on the open market."

Once the diamond is examined, it's weighed, photographed, packaged in clear plastic, sealed and assigned a random number to foil would-be counterfeiters.

The information is sent to Antwerp by computer. But what happens before a diamond gets to this office in Freetown is anybody's guess. There are weak links all along the diamond chain. Out in the bush, the mines inspectors say if they get a tip-off about illegal diamonds, they get on their bicycles or take public transportation. By the time they get to the spotů the men with the diamonds are long gone.

In July, the rebels signed an accord with the government. As part of the peace deal, they promised to stop mining and give up control of the Kono area. But Ian Smillie, a Canadian who served on the UN panel investigating conflict diamonds in West Africa, says the RUF has used previous cease-fires to prepare for more war. His group has visited rebel held areas. He says the diamond digging is going on at an even faster pace today than ever.

Smillie says that since there is a peace agreement the RUF aren't being harassed by anybody. "In fact," he says, "UNAMSIL, the UN peacekeepers are patrolling the area to make sure there isn't any fighting. They don't have the mandate to stop diamond mining, so in effect basically what we've done in helping to create a 'peace' in Sierra Leone, and I put peace in quotation marks, its given the RUF the time, the space, the ability, to dig in a way they couldn't over the past five years."

And, he says, blood diamonds are moving easily across the border in all directions.

"You can take them to Guinea," says Smillie, "you can take them to Liberia, you can take them straight to Antwerp if there was a plane going that way."

At the tiny airstrip at Freetown, passengers coming from the diamond fields line up and one by one are led into a room for a pat down. It's not a very serious attempt. Leaving the country, there's even less security. A passenger without the required police clearance gets a polite request for a bribe. Any of these people could be hiding diamonds in their shoes or watchbands. And so this is how a handful of tiny rough stones begin a chain of greed, hope and desire that will extend around the world.

Weak Links Along the Diamond Chain

Every diamond that leaves the country is supposed to come through the Government Gold and Diamond Office in Freetown. It is located just behind the Bank of Sierra Leone in two cramped rooms with a few odds and ends of furniture.

Exporters come in to the Government Gold and Diamond Office with diamonds they've bought from dealers. The two men who evaluate them are Lawrence Ndoga Meyer, the director of the office; and Lemple Michel, an Israeli dealer who represents the Diamond High Council in Antwerp. Both men say they can spot possible rebel diamonds just by looking.

Michel says, "There are certain areas, you can identify from where it comes. By the quality..."

"By certain peculiarities in the diamond you can easily identify (them)." Meyers interjects, "You have an area called Pujehun — the diamonds are smooth, oily and they are shiny. In Tongo field, a rebel held area, diamonds are crinkly, they are cleaved looking. In Kono, they are smooth, good looking, good shapes, very nice colors. They fetch a premium when they go outside on the open market."

Once the diamond is examined, it's weighed, photographed, packaged in clear plastic, sealed and assigned a random number to foil would-be counterfeiters.

The information is sent to Antwerp by computer. But what happens before a diamond gets to this office in Freetown is anybody's guess. There are weak links all along the diamond chain. Out in the bush, the mines inspectors say if they get a tip-off about illegal diamonds, they get on their bicycles or take public transportation. By the time they get to the spotů the men with the diamonds are long gone.

In July, the rebels signed an accord with the government. As part of the peace deal, they promised to stop mining and give up control of the Kono area. But Ian Smillie, a Canadian who served on the UN panel investigating conflict diamonds in West Africa, says the RUF has used previous cease-fires to prepare for more war. His group has visited rebel held areas. He says the diamond digging is going on at an even faster pace today than ever.

Smillie says that since there is a peace agreement the RUF aren't being harassed by anybody. "In fact," he says, "UNAMSIL, the UN peacekeepers are patrolling the area to make sure there isn't any fighting. They don't have the mandate to stop diamond mining, so in effect basically what we've done in helping to create a 'peace' in Sierra Leone, and I put peace in quotation marks, its given the RUF the time, the space, the ability, to dig in a way they couldn't over the past five years."

And, he says, blood diamonds are moving easily across the border in all directions.

"You can take them to Guinea," says Smillie, "you can take them to Liberia, you can take them straight to Antwerp if there was a plane going that way."

At the tiny airstrip at Freetown, passengers coming from the diamond fields line up and one by one are led into a room for a pat down. It's not a very serious attempt. Leaving the country, there's even less security. A passenger without the required police clearance gets a polite request for a bribe. Any of these people could be hiding diamonds in their shoes or watchbands. And so this is how a handful of tiny rough stones begin a chain of greed, hope and desire that will extend around the world.