photo © by CF
photo © by CF
Sierra Leone was rich in natural resources. Kenema was the seat of the diamond digging corporation in Sierra Leone. It was in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone that diamonds had been discovered many years before and it was here that The Diamond Corporation had their headquarters. Most of the activity took place to our east and to our north (Kono) where both legal (licensed) digging took place under the watchful eye of the Diamond Corporation, and also where illicit diamond digging took place. In the licensed areas you needed passes to enter. The so-called mining was surface or alluvial in type. Little activity went on in Kenema proper but it was in Kenema that the administrative headquarters for diamond digging were. Many of the administrators were expatriates - and it was my sense that a number were South African or English. The diamond corporation folks had little to do with the rest of the country in those days. They hung by themselves in or near the so-called government quarters - ate imported European food bought at the Kenema cold storage, drove Landrovers, and stuck socially to themselves. Their job was to extract diamonds - see to it that these diamonds got exported to the world market. My impression that the licensed diamonds provided Sierra Leone with some money - each diamond being taxed. However - given the structure of the government in those days - much of the "legal" diamond money never made it to provide Sierra Leoneans with the support needed and much of it ended up in the bank accounts (sometimes overseas) of politicians. There was also a large component of the diamond economy that was illicit - and although this was hard to quantify - it occupied a huge chunk of the market as well. Involvement in illicit mining included the average laborer who had left his village, moved to places such as Kono (and leaving his family behind), and hoping to make his fortune. Some diamond digging areas were wild and semi-lawless. Filled with men who had left in search of fortune, shelters were built with little planning, and digging was haphazard and everywhere. It was not unusual to have a diamond show up and be found on a road after a heavy rain, and within hours after the discovery, the road would be dug up (and impassable) soon thereafter. One one of our trips to the international town of Koindu (which sat on the borders of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia) was interrupted by such a happening. Delayed by intensive and frenzied digging by a multitude of illicit miners, the main road into Koindu became a cavernous trench, as the road was "mined" by perhaps a hundred men. Our lorry had to make a huge detour in order to get around this area.
In the Diamond Corporation areas to our east and to our north a pass was needed giving you permission to travel in these areas. It was on one such trip with a friend, that despite having adequate papers I was arrested by a soldier who was more interested in intimidation (of me) then he was in looking at my pass. I was on my way to this friend's village for a visit - a trip that required a 26 mile hike once we got off the lorry. But as I got off - the soldier approached me - declared that I was in "this area" illegally - and arrested me and took me off to the local bush jail, where for 5 hours I sat with some twenty others in a 20ft by 20ft shack. Although at first I questioned the soldier's purpose, I realized that this only made him more angry. So there I sat, until his boss arrived at our facility. Asking my soldier friend, "what is the Peace Corps doing here?" The soldier had no good answer - and soon I was released.
Were there times when we were offered diamonds? Yes - but we had been warned not to mix with this portion of the Sierra Leone economy and so we avoided any purchases. It was not unusual, when walking on a bush road, to pass strangers walking past, who would approach us, sticking out their tongues to show us diamonds that they had found. I would look but never bought any. However there were folks in Kenema who were involved in the illicit trafficking of diamonds and these included Sierra Leoneans, Sierra Leone Lebanese, and even other Africans who had migrated to the Eastern Province to make their fortunes. Many of these illicit diamonds would be smuggled to Europe for sale.
From time to time the diamond digging areas would be inundated with government soldiers sent in to drive the illicit diggers out of the area. In this case, the illicit miners would head to Kenema Town where many would then cause petty crimes in the area to rise precipitously. It was a game however. The soldiers would arrive in Kono and the illicit miners would head to Kenema. When the soldiers left Kono, the illicit miners would return. Back and forth this went about every 3 months. We learned to "batten down the hatches" during these cycles to keep our nighttime losses from robbery to a minimum. Nighttime during these periods could be exciting (and at times sleepless).
Blood Diamonds: In the best case scenario diamonds would provide Sierra Leone with income to support health and education programs. Unfortunately, although diamonds do provide some money they have also been used to support sophisticated armaments for horrid wars. The money has rarely reached the average Sierra Leonean, but many times has more likely padded the pockets of "big men," or politicians. And with the megalomania that was a part of the leadership driving the "ten year war" it was diamonds that financed everything from drugs to high end weaponry used for no better purpose then to intimidate, kill, and create chaos and instability. For ten years it was, for the most part, the selling of illicit diamonds to a European community hungry for these "trinkets," that financed many of the horrors. And as Sierra Leone circled the drain - social order became obscene and rape, and mutilation became public policy. For those ten years Sierra Leone became the epitome of a world gone wrong, and Sierra Leoneans who could, fled. And for a time the world stood by and allowed it to happen. Unmentionable horrors transpired sometimes committed by child soldiers as young as seven or eight (and sometimes directed against their own families). Drugged combatants, many times armed with automatic and sophisticated weaponry never before seen in Sierra Leone. This all was financed by the selling of what has become known as "blood diamonds." Sierra Leone deserved better.