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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Sierra Leone diamond town seeks alternative
Former combatants scramble for diamonds in Koidu, Sierra Leone
Ruined by war, Koidu still thrives on rich diamond fields
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By the BBC's Tom McKinley
Koidu, eastern Sierra Leone

After Sierra Leone's 10 years of war, and the free-for-all diamond mining that came with it, Koidu town looks as if it has been carpet-bombed.

Homes are roofless, burnt out ruins and there are deep, water-filled craters everywhere.

But there has been no air campaign on Koidu. The craters explain why Koidu was such a prize to control.

These boys were idle, they had nothing to do. That was the reason why the war broke out.

Martin Kangwe
The town is built on rich, alluvial diamond fields and every occupying army has taken their share.

The RUF rebels are the most notorious culprits but the Civil Defence Force, the former Sierra Leone Army and even the former West Africa peace-keeping force, Ecomog, bear responsibility.

They have even dug up building foundations to get at the diamonds. But there are still people living here.


Perhaps the most desperate are the young. Many of them are ex-combatants - struggling to adjust to life after the war.

Not long ago, they provided the impetus for the outbreak of war in the first place.

Today many of these young can be found in Koidu's mining craters.

A man looks for diamonds in a river
Koidu residents hope a diamond will change their lives

It is dirty, back-breaking work and rewards are few and far between. But, when found, these rewards are huge.

Dreaming of the fabled day, John Foday's smiling, mud-covered face said it all:

"I would like to be a rich man - when I take a diamond"

It is every young man's dream. But here it is more than that - it is a ticket back to normality.

John just wants to start farming again and a diamond will give him enough money to buy the seeds and tools necessary.


In Koidu town, I pass a crowd of teenagers, crowding around a hut.

This, it turns out, is a carpentry class for ex-combatants.

Many of the boys here fought against each other during the war, but now they are working together.

Five years ago they would have killed us


It is a vivid indication of how well things could work here.

For the project manager, Martin Kwangwe, this reintegration programme is a simple but vital step.

"Over past years, these boys were idle, they had nothing to do. That was the main reason why the war broke out in Sierra Leone.

"Now, I want to get these guys into activities, so that they are busy".

Buffer zone

Down the road there is an even more surreal sight. Another group of ex-combatants are busy building a row of houses.

But these are police barracks. A police officer walking past sums up my amazement:

"OK, it's strange to see RUF working with CDF, but it's even more strange to see them working for the police.

"Five years ago they would have killed us."

Unfortunately not everything has changed.

The Civil Defence force and the former RUF still live in different parts of town.

And although there are no restrictions on people's movement, the United Nations has created a buffer zone between the two - just in case.

In December last year former CDF and RUF fighters clashed over a mining dispute.

Before the UN could take control of the situation, 12 people were dead.

It is this sort of tension that has discouraged some aid agencies from coming back to Koidu and the surrounding Kono district.

Law and order

But without investment and humanitarian assistance, the towns' infrastructure will remain in tatters and the young will remain frustrated and unemployed.

The Movement of Concern for Kono youth, Mocky, epitomises this discontent.

Aerial view of Koidu's diamond mines, Sierra Leone
Mines are a curse as well as a blessing for Koidu

On the face it, the organisation has good intentions - to develop opportunities for the young.

But the UN sees the group as a possible source of trouble.

Sahr Lebbie, a leading member of Mocky and former CDF commander in the war, admits Mocky is not just a simple development organisation:

"The group of course maintains law and order for the traditional people of Kono".

In a town where there are numerous scores to be settled, such talk is a cause for concern. Many of the ex-RUF fighters in town are not traditionally from Kono.

Danger signs

But Kono District needs developing.

Without investment the young will have gained very little from ending the war and, given time, their frustration will boil over again.

And there are danger signs.

Only a few weeks ago, Sierra Leone's Finance Minister, Peter Kuyembeh, admitted that his government could not control corrupt mining and whether there is war or peace in Sierra Leone, this is unlikely to change.

But only a few lucky ones will ever truly benefit from the diamond mines.

Something else must be found for Koidu's young men or the current peace may be short-lived.

See also:

22 Mar 02 | Business
Sierra Leone in diamond struggle
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