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 time.
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
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