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Inside Sierra Leone’s Diamond Mines

Before I ever heard about Sierra Leone, my vision of a diamond miner was a jolly little dwarf whistling away down a torch-lit shaft, wielding a pickaxe, and piling heaps of sparkling gems into old mine carts.  Then came the decade long civil war in Sierra Leone and I began to read reports that diamonds, “blood stones,” were being used to fund human rights atrocities.  Children, taken from their villages at gun point, were being forced to work in the rebel controlled mines.  Two years after the war in Sierra Leone ended, I visited the country to see if the diamond mining industry resembled my Disney influenced preconceptions, or the bloody, wartime media reports.

Diamond buying office, Kenema

Kenema, the capital of Sierra Leone’s northwest diamond mining region, is a modern version of an American Frontier town during the gold rush.  Every store front lining the dusty main street has paintings of large, cartoon-like diamonds with signs advertising “Diamond Buying Office,” luring villagers from miles around with promises of easy money if they abandon their farming hoes for pickaxes and dirt sifters.  Figuring this was a good place to get familiar with the diamond industry and hopefully see some of the mining in action, I had hitchhiked the eight hours from Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital on the coast. 

Rusted out shells of old tanks and makeshift tented camps in the shadows of crumbling, bullet hole ridden buildings line the route from Freetown to Kenema.  In 2000, rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) sought to take over the diamond mines around Kenema.  As they marched on the town, they left a wake of destruction burning villages to the ground and chopping off villagers’ limbs.  The rebels pushed their offensive to the outskirts of Kenema, but were fended off by the Kamajor militia, a people’s uprising opposed to the rebels.  As a result, Kenema was spared any major damage.

Youseff Barada was in Kenema at the time of the fighting.  Like many of the Lebanese merchants in town, Youseff’s electronic store advertises diamond buying as one of its services.  I found Youseff, a friendly yet cautiously reserved heavy set man, at his desk in the back of the store.  He told me how he fled Kenema in a convoy with 22 other Lebanese families just as the rebels reached the edge of town. 

In the absence of the town’s merchants, many stores were looted and some Lebanese, such as Youseff, lost everything.  In 2002, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah burned all the guns collected from disarmed rebels in a ceremony in Freetown marking the end of the civil war.  Soon afterward, Youseff returned to Kenema to rebuild his business. 

I was more interested in the diamond business, but Youseff was hesitant to discuss it in his store.  Instead he told me to meet him at his office later that afternoon.

Past the high, barbwire metal door, past the three large African men on the front terrace, past the security camera, I arrived at the front door of Youseff’s office and he buzzed me in.  He sat behind a large desk, a small scale and a powerful lamp its only adornments.  I sat down across from him on a faded green sofa.  To my right was another large African man, Diaby, a Guinean. 

After Orange Fanta was offered, he began the interview by questioning me.  What was I doing in Sierra Leone?  Why was I asking about the diamond industry?  Who was I working for?  After I convinced him that I was just a curious traveler who wanted to learn about the Sierra Leone diamond trade, he became less suspicious of me and answered my questions. 

As a legitimate diamond buyer, Youseff has a permit from the Sierra Leone government that allows him to export raw, uncut stones.  He buys mainly from local villagers and sells them to diamond cutters in Antwerp.  As a middle man, his profit margin is roughly eight percent.  I asked him about the black market diamond trade, but he refused to talk about it. “I am a licensed diamond dealer,” he said suspiciously, “I don’t know about the illegal trade.”

A knock on the door interrupted our conversation.  Youseff buzzed in a tall, skinny villager, who, upon entering, didn’t say a word, but unwrapped a small square of white paper and produced two gems for Youseff’s inspection.  “Go on,” Youseff said to me.  “Have a look.”

To my untrained eye, the two small, uncut stones no larger than my pinky fingernail, resembled shards of glass, murky bits of crystal that I had trod on thousands of times without noticing.  I turned them around in my palm, trying to seem like an expert before handing them back to Youseff, who then went to work.  He examined the stones closely under a small lens, weighed them, punched a few numbers in a calculator, and then commenced haggling with the tall African standing next to his desk.

Youseff’s final price, roughly 300 dollars, was too low and the man carefully rewrapped his diamonds and left just as quietly as he entered.  “I see many diamonds every day.  I can’t buy them all,” Youseff said.  “These lazy Africans, they are getting rich off me.” 

“Do you think I can visit one of the mines?” I asked hopefully.

Youseff explained that he visits the mines from time to time, but he had just returned from such a trip and wasn’t planning on going back any time soon.  “For 200 dollars I will take you,” said Diaby, the large Guinean to my right breaking his silence.  I politely refused, and managed to get a few names of villages where diamond mining takes place.  “But,” warned Diaby, “Don’t visit without a guide.”

I was weighing the risks of visiting the mines unguided with the high costs of obtaining an escort on my way home from Youseff’s, when I ran into Jim The Dodgy Diamond Dealer on Kenema’s main street.  He invited me up to his third story flat for tea on the balcony overlooking the bustling street below.  Jim, a Brit, traded emeralds in Colombia before coming to Sierra Leone to deal diamonds.  Despite being self professed as dodgy, Jim was actually a bit of a nerd; not a shady mafia type, just an overgrown rock collector. 

Though he was a licensed diamond buyer, Jim was well connected in Kenema’s small diamond buying community and he told me all about the gem trade’s seedy underbelly.  A couple weeks out of the year, the Russian mafia comes to town to buy diamonds to launder money.  Because they have almost limitless cash with which to buy the stones and can pay nearly any price, small time traders like Jim can’t compete. “For the whole week that they are here,” Jim said, “Trading virtually shuts down and we go to the bars and get pissed.” 

In the months prior to September 11th, 2001, al-Qaida agents were in Kenema laundering money which was used to fund the attacks in the U.S.  Jim said that around four million dollars is pumped into Sierra Leone each week, yet almost nothing goes toward development and the country continues to rank as one of the poorest in the world.

I asked Jim about the individuals who do the mining.  With the end of the war and the disarmament of the rebels, the mines were firmly in the hands of the villagers.  Surely the villages where mining takes place have profited from their mineral wealth.  “The Africans have no concept of tomorrow,” said Jim.  “If one villager finds a diamond and makes 100 dollars, instead of saving it and looking for more, he generally stops working and drinks the money.  After a month, when the money runs out, he heads back to the mines as poor as when he started.” 

Another problem the mines create is a lack of farmers.  With all the able bodied men in the village out working the mines, there is no one to raise the food.  Sierra Leone, a tropical country that could grow an abundance of food, has to rely on foreign aid to feed its people.

Before leaving, I asked, “Is it possible to visit the mines?”

“There are some mines around the village of Tongo.  I’ve never been there myself.  I wouldn’t go without a guide.”

The next morning I found myself sandwiched in the back of a dilapidated six-seat Peugeot bush taxi with 11 other people, a goat, and three angry chickens tied to the roof.  The car labored down horribly rutted muddy tracks cut through dense lush jungle toward the village of Tongo.  Three long hours later, we rambled into the village, one dusty street lined with ramshackle wooden kiosks and a few mud huts. 

As I alighted the bush taxi in the middle of the town, I immediately felt out of place.  All of the villagers’ stares were on the lone white guy in town, not curious stares, but the kind that said, “You’re not welcome here.”  This problem, I realized, could have been avoided had I been with a guide.  A guide could have also helped with the other little problem, that I didn’t have a clue where the mines were.  The diamonds, in fact, were not being extracted right from the middle of town as I had hoped.

Had I dallied longer than two minutes in Tongo, I would have overstayed my warm welcome.  I chose a direction north of town and followed a path into the bush.  After ten minutes of walking, I came to a little hill.  To my left, about 100 meters away, I could see a large manmade lake filled with muddy water.  Around the edge, men stood knee deep in the water sifting through the dirt; diamond miners. 

I approached the mine like one would approach a hyena, if for some reason, one had a strong desire to see a hyena at really close range.  As I slowly neared the lake, I could see the men were working in groups of about ten, each stationed at intervals along the edge.

I got to within 20 meters of one group of men before someone noticed me and came over.  My heart racing, he told me in stern Pidgin English that I was in the wrong place and couldn’t stay.  Diplomacy has always been one of my best skills, and somehow, I managed to smooth talk the miner. 

Diamond Miners in Sierra Leone

Minutes later, I was at the water’s edge watching the mining operation take place.  One man shoveled a load of dirt into another’s sifter, who would shake it around in the water until the silt filtered out leaving behind the larger stones. 

The men were dressed in ratty, torn clothing, most of them shirtless, and they laughed and joked while they worked.  Had it been two years ago, a rebel soldier with an AK47 would have been watching their every move.  But these men seemed happy, content to be laboring in the hot sun, looking for that one stone that could buy them and their friends a month’s worth of palm wine.

I watched the men toiling away until the evening when they started to head back to Tongo.  Walking back behind a group of jolly diamond miners, pickaxes and shovels flung over their shoulders, I could just make out them whistling a merry tune on their way home from a hard day’s work.   

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