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Friday, 10 August, 2001, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
Sierra Leone road trip: Yengema to Koidu
Masiaka Makeni Yengema Koidu BBC West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle takes a road journey across Sierra Leone to witness first-hand how the peace process is progressing. Day four.

Koidu is no longer a town in the accepted sense of the word, but one huge diamond mine.

There are digging-pits on the outskirts of the town, there is a vast pit in the town centre and there are even diamond-mines inside some of the devastated buildings.

Most of the diamonds here are alluvial which means the deposits are near the surface and all that is required to dig for the gems is a bucket, a shovel and a sieve.

The miners create a watery, lunar landscape of holes and mounds of mud.

mining for diamonds
Koidu has turned into one large diamond mine
I stopped outside what used to be a hardware store on the main street of Koidu and stood in the mud to watch hundreds of men panning through mounds of gravel to look for a precious stone.

It is exhausting work, washing the mud away, then scraping the sieve full of stones by hand to look for one tiny gem.

Koidu, at the centre of one of the most hotly contested areas of the country during the war, was long ago looted of everything useful except its mud.

None of the houses have roofing-sheets anymore.

Very few of them have window-frames or doors, and of course all of the most precious items, like furniture, were long ago carted away by one fighting faction or the other.

That leaves diamonds as the only commodity in town.

Price of peace

In the past few weeks the joint UN and Sierra Leone government programme to disarm rebel fighters and pro-government militiamen has been going well.

Several thousand combatants gave themselves up in the space of just a few days.

They are exhausted by a war they have concluded is unwinnable and have been given confidence to give up their weapons by the presence of UN troops on the ground.

Of course, UN military observers told me that it was almost certain there were still secret weapons dumps hidden in the bush that would be used by one or another of the factions as an insurance policy if the negotiations broke down.

But the observers also said that they were very pleased with the speed at which the peace process was moving forward.

Child soldiers and RUF fighters destroying their weapons
Many rebels are handing in or destroying their weapons

Another factor is that the rebels also realise that, with the British military on the side of the elected government, they will probably never be able to take Freetown anyway.

Hence their enthusiasm to disarm and join what they hope will be a political process in which they can convert themselves into a political party.

There is supposed to be a ban on digging for diamonds to stop fights erupting around the mine but with all these hungry, frustrated former fighters around it would be quite impossible to enforce it.

And so what many of the fighters are doing is swapping one illegal activity for another.

But at least the guns are largely silent now: Weapons in exchange for diamonds.

It may not be legal, but after a decade of devastating war it is probably the best deal this country could hope to make.

See also:

31 Jul 01 | Africa
UN condemns 'callous' attack
18 Jul 01 | Africa
Sierra Leone diamond mining ban
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