NAIM MARTINS CARDOSO is a big man who does not scare easily. But when he inspects the diamond mine in northern Angola that he manages, he takes along a jeep or two of heavily armed government soldiers as escorts.
What with ambushes, land mines, and battles, a man can never be too careful in the heart of Angola's diamond region.
Mr. Martins Cardoso is the Brazilian director-general of a joint venture digging what will be one of Angola's largest mines. He would rather drive around with twitchy-fingered troops than take chances.
"They say this is what the Wild West used to be like," says Martins Cardoso, surveying the property surrounded by armed soldiers. "We call it the Wild East."
After a nearly 20-year civil war, peace officially came to Angola a year ago. But one wouldn't know it visiting the remote Lunda Sul and Lunda Norte Provinces near the Zairean border. Warlords, rebels, crime syndicates, South African mavericks, and Angolan government officials are fighting for a piece of the lucrative turf.
Diamonds here are among the world's best, and could help Angola rebuild itself.
Logically, the gems embedded in its soil and rivers should aid reconstruction of a country blessed with nearly every conceivable natural resource, but blighted by war.
The conflict raged since independence from Portugal in 1975 between Marxist rebels and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government. The leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels, Jonas Savimbi, and President Jose Eduardo dos Santos signed peace accords last year.
Despite the accords, the diamonds have fueled a continuation of the conflict in isolated areas.
"If there is no war and free circulation of people and goods, we could easily become the second-largest producer in the world," Paulinho Neto, general director of the state diamond company, Endiama, said in an interview. "But the area has been invaded by people taking advantage of the chaos. We have to restore order and lower the tensions first."
In 1992, civil war resumed after a brief peace. Since UNITA gained control of most of the diamond-producing area and has used the gems to fund its fight, Mr. Neto says, illegal digging has soared. He estimates official government production this year will amount to $60 million. The garimpeiros, or illegal diggers, will sell $250 million - with $200 million going into UNITA coffers.
The garimpeiros are often a miserable lot - toiling in river beds in their underwear and clawing out stones with their hands or shovels under the watchful eye of guards. The stones are offered with whispers across the vast country - in markets, airports, and on the streets. Often the accents are French, from West Africa.
The best-quality diamonds make it to the South African company De Beers, which controls the world diamond market. Between 1992 and 1993, De Beers bought $500 million to $800 million worth of diamonds from UNITA to maintain its grip on prices, despite having contracts with the Angolan government.
De Beers buys through agents in Zaire and the Lundas, or at its purchasing house in Luanda. Immaculate imported cars of the Angolan elite are parked outside the unmarked building. Inside, confidentiality is strictly maintained - several sets of thick metal doors separate sellers who arrive and leave via separate passageways.
The profits are evident in the twice-weekly flights to Johannesburg, which are overbooked by Angolans going on shopping excursions. It is not uncommon to see civil servants who earn a mere $25 a month board the $500 round-trip flight.
The importance of diamonds is evident in the roads around the two major diamond towns of Saurimo and Dundo, which are well-maintained and paved, unlike the potholed ruins in the rest of the country. Most of the diamond traffic comes in by private planes that land at the tiny airstrips with corn meal, building supplies, and dried fish. Many pilots are South Africans.
United Nations peacekeepers insist that last year's peace accord is largely holding despite some isolated incidents, most of them in the Lundas.
Donors, encouraged by the joint appearance of Mr. Savimbi and President dos Santos at a meeting in Brussels last month, pledged nearly $1 billion to aid reconstruction of the potentially rich but destroyed country.
But as one Western diplomat said: "Lasting peace hinges on pacification of the diamond areas."
The government last month announced a "cleanup" in the Lundas, ostensibly to expel the garimpeiros. This provoked the anger of UNITA, which called the operation a pretext to oust its guerrillas in violation of the truce.
Isaias Samakuva, UNITA's main representative on a joint commission overseeing the peace accord, said the incidents were largely carried out by rogue elements. He denied the UNITA leadership was trying to hold onto its main source of income by prolonging the war. "It is not really a political problem anymore," he insisted. "There are individuals who are out for economic gain."