Mining Bloody Diamonds
Inside Sierra Leone's rebeld-held hellhole
Charles Taylor is accused of arming the thugs who now control
50 percent of the country - in exchange for "blood diamonds".
Reporting for NEWSWEEK, Lutz C. Kleveman took a look.
When Maj. Black Man, as he calls himself, stepped to the rim
of the 10- meter deep mud pit, he wasn't the least troubled by
what he saw. "Ha! I told you," the Revolutionary United
Front (RUF) officer exclaimed. "Not a single soldier."
Surveying hundreds of dirt-smeared, mostly school-age boys toiling
with shovels, buckets and sieves, a smug grin distorted his face.
He blithely ignored the half-dozen armed guards, AK-47s in hand,
who watched over them. "Oh, the guards? They just assure
the security of the diggers,"' Black Man said, then chuckled,
as if amused by his explanation.
"I dig in the fields from early morning until the sun goes
down," said 13-year-old Sahr Koroma, as he drove his spade
into the slimy red mud. The RUF has controlled the Kono fields
since it drove out the government in December 1998 in the 10-year
civil war devastating Sierra Leone. Sahr's parents both died during
the fighting. "I enjoy digging very much," the boy said
mechanically, his eyes downcast, as Maj. Black Man stood behind
hirn. Then he whispered: "One day I am going to find a really
Just what would happen to Sahr's diamond is what worries international
observers. U.N. reports suggest it would end up in the pockets
of RUF commanders who would then trade it for weapons - an assertion
RUF officials deny. "(The diggers) can sell their stones
to whomever they like," the major insisted, adding that some
diggers do give their harvest to the rebels. "After all,
we provide their security and fight for their rights. Our revolution
is all about liberating the people of Sierra Leone from exploitation.'
And from all-too-curious questioners, it seemed, as pistol-toting
RUF "internal-security officers" arrived on red motorcycles.
One fattish boy in a black WANNA RAISE SOME HELL?! T-Shirt, Colonel
Alpha, told the reporter his security on the pit's slippery slopes
could not be guaranteed. Brandishing his revolver he warned: "I
have used this before." Only Maj. Black Man's energetic intervention
sent the pistols back to their holsters. "We have to show
the outside world that we want peace now;' he said.
Increasingly isolated, RUF commanders are trying to shed their
Army's image as a bloodthirsty mob, bent on chopping off limbs
and genitals. Cut off from Taylor, who is under growing international
pressure, and faced with the British-trained Sierra Leonean Army
itching for a final score-settling, the RUF leadership has appealed
to the United Nations to mediate peace talks.The rebels, who recently
came under heavy attacks from the Guinean Army and pro-government
militias, now seem prepared to see peacekeepers deploy deep inside
their territory. But the United Nations is cautious: a year ago,
RUF fighters took about 500 U.N. troops hostage. And many skeptics
suspect the rebels want to use the United Nations as a shield.
"The fighting must end because the people are suffering,"
said Col. Gabriel Mas- saquoi, the RUF's university-educated spokesman.
Of the diamonds, he added, "I do not deny that we mine them
and with the profits take care of our soldiers. But we do not
buy arms ... We pay teachers to run schools, and supply hospitals
But in Kono children carried neither books nor pencils, but shovels,
sieves - and guns. There was hardly a grown-up to be seen in what
resembled a vast, apocalyptic boys' camp. The town seemed to be
run by pimply teenagers. When asked if it was possible to visit
a school, Black Man suggested a trip to the city hospital instead.
The ride through the center of Kono revealed the full extent of
destruction. A handful of buildings remained amid rows of charred,
bullet-rid- dled ruins. On the town's desolate main square, haggard
women walked past smiling posters of RUF leader Foday Sankoh,
now in a government jail in Freetown: LEADING THE NATION DOWN
THE PATH OF DEMOCRACY.
At the run-down hospital, seven RUF fighters who had been shot
lay on the floor. The building held a few rusty beds and no equipment;
the director admitted he bad no anesthetics: "We just cut
the bullets out; that works."
At dusk, as diamond diggers shuffled home from the fields, the
dealers came out. "None of them is Liberian; the border is
closed." Black Man claimed. One of them, Alhaji Muba of Mali,
said, "It is good business for us. We smuggle the gems home
or sell them on the black market in Freetown." From under
his colorful galabia, Muba fetched a matchbox with two 5-carat
stones. Did he buy them from diggers or rebels? "From whoever
sells," he said, competing with Maj. Black Man for the broadest