Diamond fever turns Sierra Leone into an African Wild West
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.
(1MB/26 sec. QuickTime movie)
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
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.
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.
"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
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.
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
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
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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