"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.
Copyright © 2006 by Tom Zoellner
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