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Diamond fever turns Sierra Leone into an African Wild West

pan In this story: April 24, 1997
Web posted at: 8:02 p.m. EDT (0002 GMT)

From Correspondent Peter Arnett

KONO DISTRICT, Sierra Leone (CNN) -- Diamond fever has returned to Sierra Leone.


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Men stripped to their briefs sift sandy gravel in the shallows of the muddy Sewa River. Others in mid-stream dive to the bottom with wooden pails, scooping up gravel that they hope will include some of the diamonds that litter the river bottom.

Nearby, an army of men in shorts and T-shirts shovel relentlessly into the sides of soft yellow dirt at an extinct volcano, turning it into an ugly series of gouges and terraces. They are searching for diamonds spewed across the countryside during an ancient and fiery volcanic eruption.

Freetown, Sierra Leone

After five years of a brutal civil war that killed thousands and shut down this West African country, the diamond fields of Sierra Leone's Kono District are back in business.

And everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the action.

So frenzied is the diamond rush, in fact, that some prospectors search for gem-bearing gravel secretly mined under buildings in the district capital, endangering the structures. Roadbeds are fair game, too.

'Sierra diamond is one of the best'

Lebanese businessman Kasim Basma has been buying the shiny stones for more than 20 years, and he is understandably delighted with the new boom.

"A lot of investors are coming from outside," he says, "and, for your information, Sierra diamond is one of the best."

One of the new investors is Am/Can Mining, a Canadian company that is increasing its stake in alluvial and diamond ore mining in the hopes that the new peace will last, and that prosperity won't be far behind.

diamonds

"It's a culture shock for people who come here from the West," says Bronson Conrad, president of Am/Can. "Things operate differently, slow at times, very unpredictable. But you can get things done here."

One of the liabilities for those who lease diamond-bearing land is the likelihood that thieves will do their own mining when and where they please.

On Am/Can's property, underground volcanic fissures are packed with diamond ore, and they are a strong attraction for illegal miners who tunnel into the earth trying to find the ore.

Unreliable armed bands provide 'security'

It's a dangerous occupation. Some of the tunnels are only a few feet high and go hundreds of feet into the earth as they follow the diamond-bearing rock. In some cases, these mines collapse, killing and burying the miners.

dig

Mining along the river has its hazards, too. Sand slides can bury divers searching the river bed for the gravel they hope will also contain diamonds.

Nor is the businessman without risk in this business. Companies lured to the diamond fields by dreams of wealth often go broke. In the yard of one such business, mining equipment worth $1 million has been vandalized and left to rust.

Security in this modern-day version of the American Wild West is also a sometime thing. For two years, a private army run by an outfit called Executive Outcomes kept the peace, but it is gone now, and in its place are small armed bands of dubious reliability.

They have done little to deter robberies.

Three nights after CNN visited the area, the Am/Can company's house where the CNN crew stayed was robbed by armed men who broke in the door and looted the place. They also shot a mining engineer in the leg.

Knowledgeable locals say that's the price you have to pay to operate in the diamond-feverish world of Sierra Leone, where a bucketful of dirt can hide an uncut diamond large enough to set you up for life.

 
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