"Diamonds can boost this country into boom times," Joseph said.
His buoyancy seemed unshakable. The band onstage began to play a version of
"Shell Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes," with the words in Sango.
I ordered another beer and Joseph had another Fanta. Earlier in the evening, he
had showed me the logbook that each mine operator is legally required to keep,
called a bordure dachat, or book of sale. It was in a small composition book
with a grainy black-and-white cover, the same kind that schoolchildren use to
copy lessons. Joseph showed me how a mine operator was supposed to fill it out
by hand. Each diamond was to be listed on the right-hand side, and there were
columns for the name of the miner who found it, the place it was found, its size
in carats, and the name of the buying agency where it was sold. This was all you
needed in the Central African Republic to verify that another diamond was
heading to market.
Lets say a miner gets a diamond from someplace else? I asked.
Like from a smuggler.
Joseph spoke slowly. "This system works in theory," he said. "In
practice, this is very difficult to enforce."
The Central African Republic became a smugglers paradise when
two things happened in the late 1990s. The first was the outbreak of a vicious
civil war right across the river. The second was the growing awareness that
diamondsthe elemental symbol of lovewere responsible for mass murder.
Bangui is the next major city north of the former Belgian colony
that used to be called Zaire, the place that Joseph Conrad described in Heart of
Darkness as "so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so
pitiless to human weakness." It was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo
in 1997 after the longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko fled the country. Rebel
armies seeking to topple the regime of the new president, Laurent Kabila, were
able to purchase rifles and grenades by simply invading the diamond fields in
the north and selling the plunder. Kabila fought the rebels with his own sale of
the countrys vast diamond reserves, creating, in effect, the same kind of
kleptocracy that propped up Mobutu for three decades.
Soldiersoften no more than twelve years oldfrequently went to
work themselves in the mines, and the shovel became as important as the
Kalashnikov as a tool of war. Diamond fields became important military targets,
and those who tried to defend them would occasionally be crucified to trees.
Some of the stones were taken out of the country via midnight transfers at
remote airstrips. But many were sold blatantly in the open to buying offices in
the capital of the Congo, which in turn forwarded them via air cargo to various
European cities. Many of them wound up passing through the second floor of a
dull concrete building near the financial district of London.
This was the selling office of the De Beers Consolidated Mines,
Ltd., one of the most lasting monopolies on Earth. It had been founded by
strongmen in the heyday of colonial Africa and carries with it a nimbus of
invincibility and near-royal confidence in its mission to keep the price of
diamonds high by limiting their availability and inflaming demand with
heavy-barreled advertising campaigns. Billions of dollars worth of rough
diamonds used to be stored in its basement vaults, and its wholesalers are the
most powerful elite of the jewelry world. De Beers is not quite the evil empire
that its critics make it out to be, and I would come to learn that its majestic
facade concealed a surprising level of incompetence, but it still maintains a
level of control over the industry today unparalleled in any other commodity
trade. And critics charge that it turned a blind eye for several years to the
true source of all the gems being dug up by warrior children, which eventually
found their way onto the fingers of American brides.
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