Africa's Gems: Warfare's Best Friend
By BLAINE HARDEN
This article was reported by Alan Cowell in Zambia and Belgium,
Ian Fisher in Congo, Blaine Harden in Angola and New York, Norimitsu
Onishi in Sierra Leone and Congo, and Rachel L. Swarns in Botswana.
he rough stone emerges from
the African soil at fortress-like mines in the war zones of Angola or
straight from the muck of a dammed-up river in Congo. After journeying
across continents and oceans, after being graded, cut, polished and
set in gold along the way, a diamond lands in a display window in Manhattan,
transformed into a pricey symbol of eternal love and beckoning to brides-to-be.
The journey can take months or even years. To enforce the myth
that diamonds are rare and valuable, most of the world's rough stones
are hoarded in London and then carefully fed back into the world market.
Radhika Chalasani / Sipa, for the
New York Times
Steve Berman / The New York Times
|Above: Mati Balemo, who claws through
Congolese stream beds for diamonds, lost this $20 find to a
soldier. Below: A shop window in New York City's "diamond
De Beers, the South African conglomerate that controls two-thirds of
the world's rough diamonds, decides how many will be sold, when, to whom
and at what price.
Where they are mined responsibly, as in Botswana, South Africa or
Namibia, diamonds can contribute to development and stability. But where
governments are corrupt, rebels are pitiless and borders are porous, as
in Angola, Congo or Sierra Leone, the glittering stones have become
agents of slave labor, murder, dismemberment, mass homelessness and
wholesale economic collapse.
While market manipulation guarantees their price in world markets,
the portability and anonymity of diamonds millions of dollars worth
can be smuggled in a sock, and identifying where they came out of the
ground is often impossible have made them the currency of choice for
predators with guns in modern Africa.
"You can't wage war without money, and diamonds are money," said Willy
Kingombe Idi, who buys diamonds from diggers in Congo. "People are fighting
for money. Everything that happens, it's about money."
Cedric Galbe / Saba
|A diamond dealer in Kisangani
inspects a diamond brought in by a Congolese digger.
De Beers estimates that only 3 percent of global rough diamonds now
come from conflict areas in Africa, according to Andrew Lamont, a
company spokesman who repeatedly said it was difficult to define a
But Christine Gordon, a London-based journalist and independent
diamond expert who has been critical of De Beers, said that as recently
as the mid-1990's, diamonds from African war zones accounted for 10 to
15 percent of world supply.
In any case, violent goings-on in diamond-rich Africa have done
nothing, thus far, to change the consuming habits of Americans, who buy
more than half the world's diamond jewelry. Sales jumped about 11
percent last year. Diamond sales are also booming around the world, with
De Beers showing record sales last year of more than $5 billion.
Digging in the Mud
At the bottom rung of the international diamond trade, the need to
scrap together enough money to eat sends Africans like Mati Balemo
clawing through the mud of a Congolese stream bed. Mr. Balemo is a
On a recent morning, he and six other diggers set off from Kisangani,
in north-central Congo, traveling first by bicycle taxi and then on foot.
Along the way, a soldier armed with a stubby machine gun demanded to come
along. But he hired another bicycle taxi, which took a spill on a hill,
pleasing the diggers.
Radhika Chalasani / Sipa,
New York Times
|Mati Balemo, a diamond digger, looks
for diamonds in Lubunga stream, 20km from Kisangani.
They arrived after three hours at a small stream where the thick
canopy of bamboo and vines made the early afternoon as dark as twilight.
The diggers had been working this site for a month and had found only a
few diamonds. They used shovels to dam off small sections of the stream.
Then they heaped mounds of mud onto the bank. They picked out big rocks
from the mud and sifted through what was left with metal screens nailed
to wooden frames.
Diggers like Mr. Balemo are driven by the dream of one stone that
will change their lives. For weeks or months they work bent over in
shallow rivers or in pits. In three years as a digger, the biggest
diamond Mr. Balemo ever found was a stone of 2.16 carats worth $800.
That diamond, if it were of flawless color and clarity, could retail for
as much as $10,000 in New York, experts say. Mr. Balemo split his $800
with five fellow diggers.
Miki Galedem, 30, another digger who started when he was 16, once
found a monstrous stone of nine carats. He was paid $4,800. But he was
young then, in 1993, and the money disappeared, he said, on "beer and
Standing in a pool of water stilled by mounds of mud, the diggers
professed not to think much about their business where the diamonds
go, who wears them and at what price. "Diamonds are beautiful," Mr.
Balemo said. "Everyone wants to be beautiful. That is normal."
He was knee-deep in the stream, and had been sifting mud a brown
stew with pebbles and quartz for an hour. Suddenly, he found a
diamond. He popped it in his mouth to clean it and then showed off a
shiny white stone half the size of a raisin. His friends clapped, and
one digger guessed that traders back in Kisangani would pay $20 at most
for the stone.
"I'm very glad," Mr. Balemo said, not smiling much. This was the
first diamond in nearly a week. "It's not much money for all that work."
The soldier with the stubby machine gun, who had been watching
closely from the river bank, then came over and took the diamond. He
folded it into a scrap of paper backed with gold foil and stuffed the
packet into his chest pocket.
By the rules of Congo, the guy with the gun got the diamond. Even
when the stones are taken from the ground using the most sophisticated
equipment, the game is roughly the same.
Financing the Arms
In northeast Angola, the Catoca diamond mine one of a half dozen
such sites in that Texas-sized country is an island of modernity in a
sea of civil war. Huge earthmovers gouge out the diamond-bearing earth
and feed it into a sorting plant, where water, electric vibrators and
X-rays separate out about $8 million worth of diamonds a month, an
amount expected to quadruple as the mine expands.
The diamonds are stored in a high-security sorting room before
they are flown to Europe. As technicians grade the uncut stones, Israeli-trained
security guards watch from every angle to make sure that no one slips
a rock into his pocket. The mine has satellite TV and 24-hour Internet
access, but the only way in or out is by air. To protect employees from
attack, they are locked inside the mine's gates every night by guards
with automatic weapons.
Thembe Hadebe / The Associated Press
|An excavator digs for diamonds at the
Catoca Diamond Mine, located in Angola's northeastern Lunda Sul
Until four years ago, the men with guns were rebel soldiers working
for Unita, the Angolan rebel group led by Jonas Savimbi. Delfi Rui, a
39-year-old digger, recalled seeing rebels whip an elderly man who
refused to dig. He said they had threatened to shoot those who would not
give them at least half the diamonds they found.
The Angolan military took Catoca from Unita in 1996, and within two
years modern mining began atop one of the planet's largest veins of
diamonds. The mine now employs 1,100 Angolans and has the potential to
anchor an economic revival in a part of the country where there are no
other industries, no money for war reconstruction and no government
services. Jobs at the mine are expected to last for at least four
But the persistence of fighting in the area means that men with guns
still find ways to milk the diamond business. A private security force
controlled by the chief of staff of the Angolan Army, Gen. João de
Matos, protects Catoca. About 300 armed guards, most of them former
Angolan soldiers, have staked out a fortified perimeter around the mine.
They charge $500,000 a month to protect the mine from Unita.
Joao Silva / Sygma
|Unita leader Jonas Savimbi in 1995.
Since they were chased away from the mine, Unita soldiers have stayed
in the area and terrorized the local citizenry with hit-and-run
guerrilla raids. They have forced about 56,000 nearby civilians from
their homes. Most are destitute. Land mines have maimed many. Without
international food aid, they would starve.
Unita's behavior led the United Nations to impose a diamond embargo
on the group in 1998, making it the only African rebel force subjected
to such action.
For years, the United States and the white government of South Africa
supported Unita, an acronym in Portuguese for the National Union for the
Total Independence of Angola, as a counter to the Moscow-backed
government in Luanda. But with the end of the cold war and of apartheid,
Unita lost its military patrons. International isolation deepened when
Mr. Savimbi, its leader, lost an election in Angola 1992.
Rather than accept a vote foreign observers judged free and fair, Mr.
Savimbi returned to the bush and resumed war against the Angolan
government. His fighters seized control of the Cuango River valley,
Angola's richest diamond territory, and began a major mining operation
that more than compensated for the lost cold-war aid, and made them the
richest rebels in Africa.
Diamond money paid for Unita offensives that in the 1990's elevated Angola's
civil war to a new plateau of savagery. Highland cities like Cuito and
Huambo were all but flattened by artillery shells. More than half a million
Angolans were killed. Land mines maimed about 90,000. Fighting displaced
4 million Angolans, and about 1 million continue to depend on foreign
food aid. The United Nations Children's Fund now ranks Angola as the worst
place on earth to be a child.
Joao Silva / Sygma, for The New York
|An Angolan child bathes in
the courtyard of a slum building in the Angolan capital of Luanda
that is occupied by homeless people. The never-completed building
has sixteen floors with no running water or electricity.
At Andulo, Unita's headquarters in the central highlands of Angola,
Mr. Savimbi personally haggled with arms merchants and diamond traders
who flew in from Europe. The rebel boss bargained using small bags of
diamonds, each of which contained several million dollars worth of gems,
according to Robert R. Fowler, the Canadian ambassador to the United
Nations and chairman of a committee that investigated violations of the
embargo against Unita.
"If the price was $22 million, Savimbi would reach down for four of
those bags and two of those," Mr. Fowler said. "The arms dealers had
their diamond experts, and Savimbi had his, and they would inspect the
diamonds to see if they really were worth $22 million. And then they
haggled some more and somebody would throw in an extra bag of diamonds,
and off the arms dealers flew."
Mr. Savimbi became a major buyer on the international arms scene.
Giant Russian-made Il-76 cargo planes made as many as 22 deliveries a
night at Andulo, said Mr. Fowler. The primary source for most of the
arms was Bulgaria, the report said, although Bulgarian officials deny
The United Nations waited nearly six years before imposing an embargo
on Unita diamonds, even though there was never any doubt what Mr.
Savimbi was doing with his little bags. With an estimated $3 billion in
legal diamond sales, he built Unita into a highly mobile war machine
with 35,000 well-armed troops. By the early summer of last year, Unita
seemed on the verge of toppling the government in Angola.
The rebels were turned back only because the government went on a
$500-million weapons-buying spree of its own, financed by Western oil
companies that paid the government more than $900 million for rights to
new offshore oil finds.
Although Unita's sales of diamonds are down sharply from the
mid-1990's, the United Nations report said gems continued to play a
"uniquely important role" for the rebels.
Making a Wasteland
There is no United Nations embargo on diamonds from Congo or Sierra
Hunger for looted diamonds is a major reason why six other countries
have sent soldiers into Congo. Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe have sent
troops to protect the government of Laurent Kabila, while Burundi,
Rwanda and Uganda have sent soldiers to assist rebels trying to
Altogether, they have succeeded in shattering much of the economy of
eastern Congo, transforming Kisangani, the major city of eastern Congo,
into a gaudy and ghostly ruin.
The streets of Kisangani are nearly empty of cars. The textile plant
is closed, and the once-thriving port on the Congo River is quiet. Apart
from spotty electricity from a hydroelectric dam, there are hardly any
public services left. Public salaries go unpaid. Prices have soared.
The only businesses that seem alive are those buying diamonds from
diggers coming in from the dense forest that encircles Kisangani. To
catch their eye, storefronts have been dressed in garish paint that
shouts the names of diamond buyers like Mr. Cash, Jihad the King of
Diamonds and Jehovah Ire, run by one Papa Samuel, "in connection with
Jesus Christ." One store is painted with an image of Rambo, his machine
gun replaced with a shovel.
Inside the diamond shops it is possible to see hundreds of thousands
of dollars worth of stones. Shop owners say the diamonds are often flown
out of Congo to Rwanda or Uganda, as commanders from those countries
reward themselves for their revolutionary efforts.
"What do you think is the reason for this war?" asked a diamond buyer
named Papa Ben, who plies his trade in Kisangani. "It's only about the
riches of this country."
Only about a third of Congo's annual diamond production is being sold
through the country's official market, according to diamond experts in
Antwerp. They say the rest is being smuggled away for sale in bordering
By far the biggest diamond prize in the Congo is more than 1,000
miles to the southwest of Kisangani, near the city of Mbuji Mayi.
Diamond experts say President Kabila has allocated a substantial
percentage of that huge diamond complex to Zimbabwe, which has sent
11,000 troops to prop up Mr. Kabila's wobbly government.
So Zimbabwe has recently become a major diamond exporter, although it
has a negligible local industry.
With their eyes on the prize at Mbuji Mayi, large numbers of
Congolese rebels and supporting troops from Rwanda began massing about a
year ago to the north and east of the city. If they take the diamond
mines there, many military experts believe, Zimbabwe would lose its will
to fight and Mr. Kabila's government would probably fall.
Allying With Smugglers
In Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, the surgeons were frantic.
Scores of men, women and children, their hands partly chopped off by
machetes, had flooded the main hospital. Amputating as quickly as they
could, doctors tossed severed hands into a communal bucket.
The Revolutionary United Front, a rebel outfit that barters
diamonds for weapons, was trying early last year to conquer Freetown.
Chopping off limbs was their trademark strategy, as it greatly simplified
conquest in the diamond fields of eastern Sierra Leone. When word got
out that rebels were moving in, tens of thousands of terrified people
would take off. The rebels chased half the country's population of 4.5
million out of their homes in the 1990's. Half a million people fled the
Brennan Linsley / The Associated Press
|Abas Sesay, 4, a victim of rebel
atrocity in Sierra Leone, sits with his friend Isatu Kaigbo at a
camp for amputees and the war-wounded in Freetown.
One day during last year's carnage in Freetown, a diamond trader
approached a reporter at the Cape Sierra Hotel. He stuck out his tongue
and from beneath it plucked out a stone, which he offered to sell. When
the sale did not happen, the trader popped the diamond back in his mouth
and moved on.
In fact, most of Sierra Leone's diamonds were and still are
smuggled into neighboring Liberia for sale, according to several human
rights groups and diamond industry experts.
The leader of the Sierra Leone rebels, Foday Sankoh, has established
a lucrative partnership with his longtime Liberian friend, Charles
Taylor, the rebel-boss-turned-president. Both had training in Libya,
both their rebellions began in the late 1980's, and their armies have
helped each other fight.
Mr. Sankoh's access to the world's diamond bourses and to arms was
secured when Mr. Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997. The
Liberian government denies this trade, as does Mr. Sankoh.
But a number of diplomats, international relief officials and mining
experts say there is persuasive evidence. Liberia was a marginal
exporter of diamonds until the mid-1990's. Since then it has it exported
some 31 million carats more than 200 years' worth of its own national
capacity, according to trading records in Antwerp.
After Mr. Sankoh failed to take Freetown last year, he signed a peace
deal granting his rebels amnesty for war crimes. The deal, which was
brokered by the United Nations, also gave him a government job
chairman of the Strategic Minerals Commission, which controls diamond