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Demystifying African Diamonds How Diamonds are Mined and the Local Money Flow The Sierra Leone and Liberia Experience By Douglas Farah The Department of State January 12, 2004

In the diamond fields of Sierra Leone, mining in recent times has almost always been highly-structured but economically exploitive system. Miners traditionally work for someone else or go into debt to buy the equipment they need, meaning they see little of the profits. And, like the tales from the Old West, those that strike it moderately rich often squander the proceeds of the strike quickly and return to the mining fields shortly afterward to resume their backbreaking labor.

The current structure of diamond mining in Sierra Leone-Liberia nexus remains in flux after years of being under the control of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front and Charles Taylor in Liberia.

During the peak of Sierra Leone's civil war, beginning in 1997, the area around Kono, Sierra Leone, became a prized rebel stronghold. It's geographic proximity to Liberia and its distance from the capital of Freetown made it relatively easy to defend. Because the RUF and government forces had battled over the region for several years, the once-thriving commercial centers in the area were razed to the ground and all public facilities such as schools, hospitals, electrical plants and water service, were demolished. Because of the terror tactics used by the RUF, including mass rape, abduction of children and the amputations of arms and legs of civilians, those who could escape did.

To make up for the labor deficit, the RUF brought in thousands of captured slaves to work the diamond fields, the sole source of income for their war. Since the mining was concentrated during the rainy season, when the rivers were high (May-September), the RUF would sometimes allocate some of its troops to mining in those months. It was only a small risk because the fighting usually dropped off during the rains.

But the RUF reaped only a fraction of the wealth the diamond fields produced. While setting up a diamond-mining operation is cheap because no drilling is required-it cost about $15 to outfit a miner with a shovel and a "shake-shake" used to sift the gravel--and the profits high, the RUF never developed its own capacity for valuing their stones. Instead, they would send the parcels of diamonds, wrapped in plastic or stuffed into glass bottles, with one of several trusted couriers, to Taylor and his senior officers in Monrovia. In exchange, Taylor would ship back the weapons, medical supplies, boots and clothing that RUF requested. But the market value of the exchanges was grossly disproportional. For example, the RUF could send out stones worth a more than a million dollars and then request a few hundred AK-47 assault rifles, a few thousand rounds of ammunition and some other goods, which cost Taylor perhaps $150,000. The RUF was satisfied with the arrangement, as was Taylor, who reaped huge profits that he used to maintain his own reign of terror while stashing hundreds of millions in overseas accounts.

On the ground, discipline in the RUF mining operation was maintained by the "Black Guard," and elite group of thugs whose sole loyalty lay with RUF leader Foday Sankoh or his protg, Sam "General Mosquito" Bockerie. Those mining were allowed to wear only the skimpiest of underwear while carrying out their job, and were forced to strip completely and expose all body cavities before being allowed to leave, to insure no diamonds were stolen. Those caught stealing were summarily executed in front of other miners.

While mostly illiterate, the Black Guard did maintain a record of what was mined. Written in large, uneven letters in notebooks used in grade school, the few that could write noted down the date, the color of the diamonds and the approximate weight. This information was periodically sent to Sankoh or his most trusted aides. In May 2000, when Sankoh was arrested in Freetown, the books became public for the first time.

Those wishing to buy RUF diamonds had to deal with Taylor, and usually were introduced by someone known to Taylor or his small group of confidants. In recent years, prominent buyers have included Americans, Belgians, South Africans and representatives of al Qaeda and Hezbollah. The key gatekeeper in the process was a Senegalese soldier of fortune named Ibrahim Bah. Those doing business would usually pay an "advance tax" to Taylor for the right to buy RUF diamonds. The "tax," supposedly against future earnings, was usually delivered in cash to Taylor, and ran from $500,000 to $1 million.

Once access was established, Bah or other senior Taylor aides would introduce the buyer to the RUF leadership, where a smaller sum of money, usually about $50,000, was paid and the deal sealed. When a package was ready for sale, almost always in Belgium, the middleman would arrange to move the merchandise. Often accompanied by Bah or others, the diamonds would be put up for bid among a small group of trusted buyers. Each potential buyer would be given a time to come to the middleman's office or hotel to look at the stones. After examining the packet, the potential client would write a bid and seal it in an envelope. When the bids were complete, the winner would be called back and given 30 minutes to make his payment in cash. If he couldn't deliver, the next-highest bidder would then be called.

Taylor's commission was usually one-third of the sale, with Bah and other also taking a share. The middleman would end up with about half of the sale price.

As the civil war in Sierra Leone wound down in 2001, the dynamics shifted somewhat. Groups of civilians were allowed back into the Kono region to mine, as long as the RUF got one-third of whatever profits they reaped. Large contingents of slaves were still being used. At the same time, as part of the U.N.-monitored peace process, units of the RUF were disarming. Instead of completely demobilizing, the former combatants retained their structure and went into the diamond fields as well. That structure lasted long enough to allow al Qaeda and Hezbollah operatives, who had a near-monopoly on the RUF diamonds at the time, to buy significant sums of diamonds. But by the end of 2001 was beginning to unravel. What little discipline the RUF had been able to maintain in peace time eroded, prior inhabitants of the region returned in droves and the government sought to impose some sort of control in the area. At the same time, Taylor, under increasing pressure in Liberia that would eventually lead to his resignation, was no longer able to provide the pipeline to the outside world.

Interestingly, in Kono during the summer of 2001 much of the buying of diamonds on the ground was conducted by women, known simply as "Ma" or "Mama." They were elegantly dressed and protected by heavy security, but I could not determine if it was their own or RUF. They carried scales to weigh the stones, and directly supervised much of the digging. I could not find out if they were traditional buyers or new players emerging.

The RUF did not have a monopoly on diamond mining, and, even during the war the traditional buying structure, controlled by Lebanese expatriates, continued to exert a great deal of influence. In the towns of Bo and Kenema, the interlocking Lebanese families have controlled the trade and traditional smuggling routes for more than 40 years. Their huge signs advertising the purchase of diamonds often stand in front of dingy stores, and miners complain that prices are routinely fixed so low they cannot really make a living. If one diamond buyer turns them down at the price the miner asks it is likely other buyers will also turn him down. This ensures that the miners, who are largely illiterate and have no other source of income or hope of establishing their own businesses, can never break free of buyers.

The traditional buyers usually declare a tiny percentage of their purchases to the government for tax purposes and smuggle the rest out of the country. As corruption on a national level spread, the legal export of diamonds fell from a high of 2 million carats in 1971 to 48,000 by 1988, a testament to the rapacious nature of the state of Sierra Leone, whose ministers and presidents pocketed much of proceeds from the undeclared stones.

During the war, those that could not deal in Liberia under Taylor opened new channels through Guinea and the Gambia. Because smuggling into Antwerp was so easy and posed so little risk, the large majority of the illicit diamonds ended up there.

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