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Friday, 5 May, 2000, 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK
Cleaning up the diamond badlands
UN colonel
The first UN peacekeepers to arrive in Sierra Leone were Kenyans
West Africa Correspondent Mark Doyle looks at the importance of diamonds as the first UN troops arrive in Sierra Leone.

Rich, green jungle covers the mountains around Daru, a small market town nestling in a fertile river valley in the east of Sierra Leone.

As I flew over the surrounding countryside by helicopter I saw the diamond mines - a moonscape of pits dug in dry riverbeds.

Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of diamonds, some of the best quality gemstones in the world, are mined here every year. It's low-tech mining - the diamonds are found close to the surface so men with guns employ labourers simply to dig holes and look for fabulous wealth.

Curse of diamonds

Sierra Leone's diamonds have been a curse on the country. Hardly any of the wealth has reached the ordinary people, who according to statistics are the poorest in the world.

Rather, the easy diamond pickings have encouraged the worst in human nature here, corrupted local politicians and drawn in all sorts of foreign adventurers and mercenaries, attracted like bees to a rancid honeypot.

And the diamonds have financed the war, which is to a large extent a conflict for the control of the mines and the money.

The UN has decided to deploy crack Gurkha troops from the Indian army in this most sensitive area of the country. A battalion of these peacekeepers, fresh from fighting insurgents in Kashmir, should arrive in the next few weeks. They will come in peace but it's surely no coincidence that the UN is sending some of its best troops into the rebel-held diamond region.

Although, according to the UN, rebel commanders have agreed to the Gurkha move, these peacekeepers may well find their deployment resisted by armed men protecting their ill-gotten diamonds.

Test of resolve

It's almost inevitable that some group, some time soon, will test the determination of the UN force to keep the peace. It could be an ambush, it could be a kidnapping, it could be someone taking a pot shot at the UN.

Of course, none of the peacekeepers wants a clash to happen, but there's a private concensus among the UN soldiers that if it does happen here in the east the Indian Gurkhas will have to hit back decisively, as their mandate allows, to show who's boss. If they don't, then the UN could be humiliated and may as well pack its bags there and then, leaving Sierra Leoneans to their fate.

But for now there are already some positive signs as the unarmed military observers drive around Daru. Small boys shout friendly greetings and adults watch with fascination. One of the British officers is learning the local language - Mende - and he shouts greetings back, winning hearts and minds.

Because of the ceasefire, the little market place in Daru is thriving. A few commercial trucks have braved the bandit-infested roads to bring in consumer goods - salt, soap and toothpaste. I even saw some rebels in the market selling rice grown in the area they control.

But encouraging commerce and winning round Sierra Leonean civilians is a relatively easy step for the UN. Sierra Leone is highly dangerous place and the real test will be winning the respect of the men with guns. That test is likely to come in the diamond badlands of eastern Sierra Leone, and the men likely to face it will be Indian Gurkha troops.

Sierra Leone in crisis

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See also:

30 Nov 99 | Africa
12 Oct 99 | Asia-Pacific
13 Feb 99 | Africa
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