Sierra Leone's troubling stones

Diamonds fueled a decade of civil war. Can the nation's new leaders rein in illegal mining and trading?

The murky river Meya runs straight through Koidu town. Six months ago, a visitor would have seen thousands of teenage boys doubled over in the river – shirts off, brows dripping with sweat – sifting for diamonds.

Today, most of those boys are gone. Gone, too, are the "boss men" – hardened Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel leaders who ran the show from dilapidated bridges overhead, drugged on cocaine and fanning themselves under big colorful umbrellas.

The peace agreement signed in January between the government and the rebels has not significantly changed the look of Koidu, the main town in Sierra Leone's diamond-rich Kono district – a place known during the 10 long years of civil war as "the Wild East." The roads are still filled with potholes and overgrown with weeds; the buildings, pockmarked by bullet holes, are still in ruins; and burned-out tanks belonging to South African mercenaries still lie rusting in the surrounding jungle.

Still, there are clear signs that new sheriffs are in town.

President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, reelected last week to another five years in office, and in control of the whole country for the first time in 10 years, has sent out supervisors and police to regulate the activities in these fields of riches. These government men, operating out of an old grocery store and lacking any means of transportation, are meant to process licenses, oversee mining, chase down smugglers, and see to it that the diamonds found are sent to the capital, Freetown, to be taxed and certified before leaving the country.

Their task is crucial. For if Sierra Leone is unable to regulate this industry, say analysts, diamonds – or rather the lust for them – could well fuel another war in this impoverished, unstable land.

For years, the diamonds mined in the Kono district were used by rebels to buy weapons and enrich themselves, perpetuating the civil war. The diamonds were smuggled into nearby Liberia and Guinea, or sold directly to agents in Antwerp or Tel Aviv. Middlemen, unscrupulous arms dealers, and of course, the rebels – who started the war in the name of democracy and equal distribution of resources – all benefited.

The big losers were the people of Sierra Leone. More than a million were displaced in the war; some 50,000 were killed. Thousands were abducted, raped, robbed, and their hands or legs cut off.

Sierra Leone is not the only warring country where the gleaming rocks have contributed to mayhem. For years, rebels in resource-rich Angola and Congo have financed their wars with illegally smuggled "blood" diamonds.

A World Bank study last year estimated that $138 million worth of diamonds was exported from Sierra Leone in 1999; only $1.2 million worth left the country through legal channels. Liberia, the suspected destination for most of these stones, had been a marginal exporter until the mid-1990s. Since then, Liberia has exported more than 200 years' worth of its own national capacity, according to trading records in Antwerp.

In recent months, the Sierra Leone government's control over the diamond fields, along with UN sanctions on Liberia, have reduced, but not stopped, smuggling.

Today, only licensed prospectors are allowed to mine in Kono. The teams are kept 200 meters away from bridges, to protect their foundations. They work in clearly defined plots. Police patrol the muddy pits to make sure that all finds are registered in government books and later taxed at the requisite rate of 3 percent.

Meanwhile, the RUF offices in Koidu are boarded up. A half-dozen aid organizations offer rehabilitation programs for ex-combatants. A new food market has opened in "New Lebanon," a slum named for the diamond dealers who once lived there. And on an empty street corner downtown, the police have put up a sign: "No parking. No stopping."

"We are reasserting our authority. We have control. There is law and order," insists Amadu Mamsaray, assistant secretary at the Ministry of Mineral Resources. But he later acknowledges that not all is so rosy. The 23 supervisors and 27 policemen sent to Koidu – paid $50 to $75 a month – are not given housing, and are not happy.

"The supervisors are corruptible," allows Mr. Mamsaray. "They aid and abet because they have no incentive not to," he sighs.

The venality is not just local, says Sierra Leone's ambassador to the US, John Leigh.

"The West's appetite for diamonds, wherever they come from, is corrupting us," he charges. "The diamond industry has to help on the buying side. They have to be vigilant in implementing the diamond certification scheme," says Mr. Leigh, referring to the international agreement to allow only diamonds legally registered and certified in their country of origin, by the government, onto the international market.

The West, Mr. Leigh says, is ignoring this problem at its own peril. Leigh says the Lebanese Hizbullah guerrilla organization, and possibly also Al Qaeda, are using the illegal diamond trade as a way to launder money. Several senior Western diplomats in Freetown, as well as industry insiders, confirm that such laundering is taking place in Sierra Leone.

Back at the diamond pits in Koidu, one of the laborers acknowledges that he was once a "boss man." He says he never gave any thought to international terrorism, and never much considered the connections between diamonds and war. All he knows is that not too long ago, life seemed easier. "Good times," he reminisces, pointing to the bridge where he once sat beneath his umbrella.

Another laborer has strapped a yellow bandana around his head, emblazoned with the name of President Kabbah's political party. He lost his sister in the war. His home was razed. He left school. He glances over at the former rebel with disdain. "Those days are over," he says. "You have hurt us enough."

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