Excerpt of The Heartless Stone by Tom Zoellner
(Page 7 of 11)
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Three more pebbles, tossed into an ocean of dreams.
Ive had my share of truly awful momentsthe kind that you wish
you could blot out of your memory for good because they hurt so muchand one of
them was the Tuesday night in February that Anne took the engagement ring off
her finger and handed it back to me.
We were sitting on my couch, in the midst of what would be the
last of an agonizing series of discussions over whether we should go through
with the wedding. The last three months of the engagement had been bad, full of
doubts and silences, and in retrospect, we made the right decision; but I will
still never forget the look on her face as she removed the diamond and handed it
to me. I stared at it in my palm. It was still a little warm from her hand.
After she walked out the door, I put the ring back into the blue
box it came in, the one that closed with a snap. I tucked the box in the corner
of my top desk drawer, put some old phone bills over it, and promptly got drunk.
For the next week, I opened the box each night just to see it, and it made me
cry each time.
After that first week, I didnt look at it again for a long
There are bullet holes in the garage walls at the buying agency,
souvenirs of last years revolution. The finance director pointed them out to me
with something like pride. This was one of the first places looted. "What, you
think the guys before you didnt get everything?" he had asked the twelfth band
of thugs who shot their way inside. This company was lucky. One of the six other
licensed agencies saw its offices burned out.
This agency was one of the most heavily fortified buildings in
Bangui, outside of the Presidential Palace. It looked like a colonial estate.
The walls fronted a dirt street littered with trash and crawling with beggar
children, but inside the compound was a tended garden, a television satellite
dish, and a Range Rover. There used to be a large illustration of a diamond on
the front gate, but that had been painted over to conceal the true business of
the place and the wealth inside. Not that it was a big secret in Bangui. This
was the mouth of the pipeline to Antwerp, where virtually all of the Central
African Republics diamonds would enter the Western market.
"Look, let me be honest with you," the director said, about half
an hour into our conversation. He was a Belgian, about thirty years old, with
gray patches salted through his hair. "I didnt come here to help this country.
I didnt come here to build hospitals. I could say that I did, but Im not that
kind of liar. I came here to do business, nothing more. But I really think the
government should stop paying these thieves and put the money into schools or a
hospital. When you see all this misery and the people all around not getting
paid wages, it breaks your heart. All over the world, people believe diamond
buyers are making huge profits. But those days are over. Were fighting here
like crazy, man. We have to take a lot of discomfort for our profit."
This was after the point at which he felt comfortable enough
with me to produce, as casually as if he were brushing away a fly, a Beretta
pistol from his waistband, to show how hed welcome looters when the next coup
arrived. Almost as thoughtlessly, he dug out a piece of rough that had been sold
to him not long ago. It was 27 carats, about the size of a big ripe blueberry.
How much had he paid for it? About $52,000. I played with it idly in my hands
while I asked him about the illegal flow of diamonds in and out of the country.
He was quick to explain that he and his company were not involved, but readily
admitted that it was common practice by others.
"I dont buy diamonds from people I dont know," he said. "In
any profession, you have good and bad. But we are taking a lot of risks to
establish these offices in unstable places. Smuggling is smuggling."
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Zoellner