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BBC's Andrew Gilligan
on his visit to a Sierra Leone diamond mine
 real 28k

Friday, 26 May, 2000, 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK
Still open for diamond business

By Radio 4 Today programme's diplomatic correspondent Andrew Gilligan

The Sierra Leone Government says its ultimate goal is to recapture its diamond mines from the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

But here in Kenema, Sierra Leone's diamond trading capital, RUF traders are selling diamonds quite openly under the noses of pro-government forces.

When they have sold their diamonds they go shopping and buy the latest wares

Moses Yarjoh

Kenema's 25 licensed diamond dealers dominate the main street of this little town. They are all open and doing good business.

In the outer office of Bongo Diamonds one of the largest a room full of prospectors is waiting, each clutching a precious little twist of paper in his hand.

Word soon got around that a white man was in town asking about diamonds. Within hours of our arrival two people had asked if they could sell us some.

An uneasy place

The diamond mines to the north and north-east of this town are controlled by RUF rebels. Those to the west are controlled by the Kamajor militia - loyal for the moment to the government.

RUF rebels
Rebels control the diamond mines

Both factions come here into Kenema to sell their diamonds making it a distinctly uneasy place.

Sam Navo, a local barrister, says that the townspeople "sleep with our fingers crossed".

Moses Yarjoh, a local journalist, says you can easily recognise RUF diamond dealers.

"They travel in groups," he says. "When they have sold their diamonds they go shopping and buy the latest wares."

Trade has reduced

Many of the best rebel diamonds go straight over the border to Liberia - only a proportion are traded in Kenema - and the trade has reduced since the rebels have become more unpopular here.

But it's still substantial. We approached one group we believed to be RUF diamond traders but they drove off when they saw our microphone.

Kenema is controlled by pro-government forces and it seems incredible that the rebels are still allowed to trade.

Business is business

Local woman
Local people don't reap the benefits from the diamond trade
But the diamond lobby is strong here and business is business.

I asked Anthony Tokoba Bikoka, a trader at Bongo, what he would do if a rebel offered him diamonds.

"You cannot say no to any good offer," he replied.

The close proximity of RUF forces also weighs on many minds here.

The reasoning seems to be that if you leave the rebels' diamond sellers alone their colleagues with the guns won't come to town and cause havoc.

According to Moses Yarjoh the local RUF, unlike their counterparts in the north, are not very interested in fighting. They proclaim their commitment to the peace process and even play football matches with their Kamajor enemies.

So long that is, as no one challenges their hold over their diamond mines.

A giant gravel pit

children panning for diamonds
Children and teenagers work in the mines
The mines themselves are equally surprising. We walked through a waste-deep river and for 20 minutes into the bush to reach Sese, one of the largest government-controlled workings.

There are no deep diamond mines in this part of Sierra Leone. One hundred near naked miners - most of them children and teenagers - hacked away with shovels in what looked like a giant gravel pit.

They remove the topsoil, extract the earth underneath, and pan it for the precious stones.

"We have faith in God,"says the manager when asked how they know where to dig.

There's not much else in the way of reward for these workers. Whoever is getting rich in the diamond trade it is not them.

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See also:

09 May 00 | Africa
Can the UN force restore peace?
10 May 00 | Africa
Brutal child army grows up
10 May 00 | Africa
Where is Foday Sankoh?
09 May 00 | Africa
BBC's key role in Sierra Leone
04 May 00 | Africa
Renewed bid to free UN troops
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