Diamond sales raised more than $1 billion to pay for the violent
quagmire in the Congo which involved seven nations and killed more than 2
million people through starvation, disease, and slaughter between 1998 and 2002.
Though despicable, nothing about the diamond-based financing was technically
illegal. And it was good business, too. The cargo of African wars made up as
much as 14 percent of the worlds entire diamond trade. There was no way to sort
the bloody stones from the clean ones, and the diamond industry had no interest
in separating the two. Once they were shipped to Antwerp or London, they were
dumped into bulk sales pouches like wheat seeds poured anonymously into the bins
of a Kansas grain elevator. Jacqueline was right: there was simply no way to
tell where my fiancées ring had come from.
Good intentions sealed the Central African Republics fate. A
British organization named Global Witness published a groundbreaking report in
1998 called A Rough Trade. It exposed the runaway use of diamonds to fuel
African civil wars, especially on the part of a rebel army in the former
Portuguese colony of Angola. Stories also began to leak out about the
diamond-vending Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone, whose doped-up
soldiers used machetes to hack off the hands and arms of thousands of villagers
in an attempt to keep them from voting. The phrase "blood diamonds" entered the
Western vocabulary and De Beers was shamed into closing its buying offices in
Angola. Retailers proclaimed themselves shocked their diamonds might have been
used to buy guns or machetes. "The thought that a Tiffany product, no matter how
indirectly, could be linked to the horrific events of Sierra Leone absolutely
and figuratively makes us lose sleep," Tiffany & Co. CEO Michael Kowalski told
The Washington Post.
Feeling the pressure, South Africa and forty-four other
diamond-producing countries developed a cursory method to stem the flow of blood
diamonds known as the Kimberley Process. Now the daily loads of gems being flown
to Europe had to come with a certificate declaring they were not mined in a
nation in a technical state of war. The diamond industry hailed it as a giant
step in the right direction. But human rights groups criticized it as
superficial and full of loopholes. And one of the many problems was this: The
capital of the Central African Republicwith six buying agencies and a direct
pipeline to Antwerpis a ten-minute canoe ride from the edge of the Congo.
"Officially, the government wants to make it all legal and
regulated," Joseph told me as we sat next to the Oubangui River. "But
unofficially, theres smuggling. I can take a stone and put it into my mouth.
Under my tongue. Bam, its gone."
How brazen is the smuggling? The statistics of production and
sale are almost laughable when you line them up next to each other. Im saying
"almost" because there is much death and suffering in the gap where some arms
merchants make a tidy profit. The mines of the Central African Republic are
capable of producing about 500,000 carats a year, at most. But the diamonds that
showed up in Antwerp with the Central African Republic listed as the official
country of origin amounted to nearly twice that in 2000. This gap persists
today, and it isnt hard to guess where the extras are coming from.
"This is the subject nobody wants to acknowledge," said Reinhard
Moser, the project chief for Radio Ndeke Luka, the nations only private radio
station. "It is laughably easy to smuggle diamonds here. Nobody knows the true
Only tiny drops from this underground crystal stream can be
clearly glimpsed, and then only for a moment. When I told the men from the Congo
that I couldnt buy any of their diamonds that morning on the patio, they left
angry. I saw them later that day outside the high metal walls of a
diamond-buying agency whose office was on the road to the airport.
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