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 volume."
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.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Zoellner
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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