BBC News UK Edition
 You are in: Programmes: Correspondent  
News Front Page
N Ireland
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Correspondent Friday, 19 October, 2001, 15:09 GMT 16:09 UK
Blood diamonds
Mining for diamonds in Sierra Leone

Click here for transcripts

Diamonds are big business - the retail trade is worth over $30bn annually. But many of the stones are dubious in origin, coming from African countries immersed in civil wars. They are known as "blood diamonds" - sold by rebels and governments to fund their war campaigns.

Sierra Leone has vast mineral wealth - gold, bauxite, timber and copper, yet it remains one of the poorest countries on earth.

Sierra Leone

Until recently Sierra Leone was exporting millions of dollars worth of gems - but most were smuggled, many "blood diamonds" from the rebels.

Bordered by Liberia and Guinea, its porous boundaries have long been a popular route for smuggling raw materials, weapons and - most significantly - uncut diamonds.

In 1991, former army corporal Foday Sankoh led the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) from the jungles bordering Liberia and declared war upon the government. Sankoh's battle cry was a fight against corruption and the poverty of his people.

It even got to the point where you hid from the rebels, from the militia and even the government soldiers

Tamba Lebie
Backed by Liberian President Charles Taylor, the rebels succeeded in keeping their war alive for over 10 years, a war that claimed the lives of thousands, displaced millions and exposed the civilian population to a barbarism that shocked the world.

It soon became clear the RUF's political aims came second to their pursuit of mineral wealth as they battled the western-backed government for control of the diamond territories.

Diamonds and war

In Sierra Leone most civilians here have never set eyes on a diamond, much less benefited from the country's vast mineral deposits but they were caught in the middle.

Many were used as slave labour. Others fled in their thousands only to starve or die of malaria in the jungle. Former miners like Tamba Lebie tell a common story:

Tamba Lebie now works in Government sponsored mine
Tamba Lebie, miner formerly from Kono

"The rebels drove us out in 1992, we fled to another country. We went and lived in Guinea like refugees. It was a constant struggle. We came back and started to settle again, they drove us out again, burnt all our houses, our cars, took our money, everything... It even got to the point where you hid from the rebels, from the militia and even the government soldiers."

Tamba lost most of his family to the RUF rebels. Others suffered the punishment typical for anyone suspected of opposing the rebels - amputation of one or both hands.

Now however, sanctions have been imposed against Liberia - the rebels' major smuggling partner - and a certification scheme has been introduced to show where the diamonds originate from. The RUF is now being forced to sue for peace.

The RUF in Kono

We travelled to the heartland of the Rebel RUF in Kono. This was Tamba's hometown until the rebels forced him and most of the population to flee.

Destroyed by 10 years of fighting, the area is the key to Sierra Leone's economic prosperity. Both Kimberlite and alluvial mining possibilities have made it a target for both sides.

The government is just trying to destroy the image of the RUF

RUF Commander
Tales of slave labour, torture and murder against the civilians of Kono have made the town the symbol of RUF brutality. The area is cut off by destroyed roads and the threat of ambush. Few venture to the area to see the reality of RUF rule.

We were given unprecedented access to the town and the rebel forces who control the diamond mines. But what we saw raised questions about whether the moves made to stop blood and illicit diamond smuggling really work.

The RUF is now keen to put its side of the argument across and commanders denied all accusations of slave labour and random brutality.

Mining in RUF-held Kono
"The government is just trying to destroy the image of the RUF. But from the moment you go out onto the street here today, if you went to my house and back again, according to the government you'd see at least two or three people fighting on the street but I bet you didn't see anything like that, everybody is moving about on their own business, laughing on the streets. I am sure you saw it for yourself."

It is a claim that men like Tamba will never believe.

"In the RUF's territory, it is only safe if you're a member of the RUF, if you are not in the RUF and you go to the RUF territory, your life would be at risk. If you found a diamond the RUF would kill you and take your diamond away from you."

The whole town is being excavated as men dig for diamonds - under houses and along the main road. The RUF claims all these men are free labourers, working for a share of the profits - a claim impossible to verify under the eyes of their minders.

Diamond smuggling persists

Rebel diamond smugglers claim they sell these gems freely to licensed traders in government territory. They laugh at the concept that the market bothers to distinguish between their diamonds and legitimate stones. They claim the government is as corrupt as they are.

"We sell diamonds to the government and people that won't give us any trouble. The diamonds that we get are only sold in Freetown. We don't sell any abroad. We don't sell any to the Liberian or Guinean Government, only the Sierra Leonean Government."

UN troops
UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone

Filming took place at a vital moment in the country's move towards peace - with fighting coming to an end in Kono whilst the BBC team was there.

Even as the rebels now disarm in the Kono area, mining has increased as the RUF seeks to stockpile its wealth. If they refuse to give up revenue supplies like Kono - can there be peace?

Meanwhile the rebels have a ready market on the other side - officials are bribed, and many of the diamond traders are unlicensed, happy to buy stones - no questions asked.

As a result, the system of certification is reduced to a PR exercise to pacify consumers and the international community. The RUF sells diamonds, corrupt officials and dealers buy them and many gems will never be seen by official eyes.

The government refused to accept the situation cannot be improved. With peace on its way, the government desperately needs the revenue from the country's gems.

The Minister of Mineral Resources, Mohammed Swarray-Deen, insists that the government is doing all that it can to prevent the illegal diamond trade:

"The diamond situation is such that you have to have sophisticated methods of monitoring, which I'm afraid we don't have. We rely on the integrity of our officers. All you have told me that everybody in the whole system is rotten and I don't believe that. I don't believe that," said Mohammed Swarray-Deen, a government official in Sierra Leone.

And as long as officials deny there is a problem, peace cannot be assured. Sierra Leone's mineral wealth will continue to be sold off to Western consumers without having benefited the people, and may well remain its curse.

Blood Diamonds: Sunday 21st October 2001 at 1915 on BBC Two

Reporter: Ishmahil Blagrove
Director: Francis Smith
Deputy Editor: Farah Durrani
Editor: Fiona Murch

Ishmahil Blagrove
Blood diamonds
Tamba Lebie
The government sponsors miners to find diamonds
Ishmahil Blagrove
UN peacekeepers enter RUF held territory
Ishmahil Blagrove
Mining in Konan
See also:

17 Aug 01 | Country profiles
10 Aug 01 | Africa
25 Jul 01 | Africa
01 Aug 00 | Africa
18 Jul 01 | Africa
18 Jul 00 | Africa
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Correspondent stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Correspondent stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | World | UK | England | N Ireland | Scotland | Wales |
Politics | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology |
Health | Education | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |