C. Africa’s di­a­monds come at high price in blood

The China Post - - WORLD BUSINESS - BY PA­TRICK FORT

Bare­foot, with sweat pour­ing down their naked chests, 50 men slave in the depths of the Cen­tral African for­est dig­ging for di­a­monds in a sandy pit half the size of a soc­cer pitch.

They all share the same des­per­ate hope — that one day they will find a di­a­mond that will change their mis­er­able lives for­ever.

The mine at Ba­neng­bele, near Boda in the south of the strife-torn Cen­tral African Repub­lic, is one of many in the re­gion where groups of dig­gers — or “Nag­bata” as they are called — toil like ants with shov­els and spades for the equiv­a­lent of three dol­lars a day.

The owner of the mine takes a cut of that for food, with many of the min­ers sup­ple­ment­ing their mea­ger ra­tions with bush meat like snake caught in the sur­round­ing jun­gle.

Con­di­tions in the camp are grim. Four men sleep in a makeshift shel­ter no more than 1.5 me­ters wide (five feet) made of sticks, plas­tic sheet­ing and a mos­quito net.

Af­ter long days of back-break­ing la­bor in ter­ri­ble heat, many numb them­selves with cannabis and palm wine.

“We work hard. I ache all over,” said Jean Bruno Sem­bia.

Widow Huguette Zonki had no choice but to fol­low the min­ers into the bush to feed her four chil­dren.

“I have to sur­vive some­how,” she said hold­ing her baby, whose head was cov­ered in pus­tules. “My hus­band was killed in the war. I earn three eu­ros a day cooking for the men and I spend be­tween five days and a month at a time out here in the camp.”

Smug­gling and Sac­ri­fices

The min­ers sac­ri­fice chick­ens and give money to chil­dren in the hope that the spir­its will smile on them in a coun­try where nei­ther Chris­tian­ity nor Is­lam has en­tirely dis­placed tra­di­tional an­i­mist be­liefs.

“Ev­ery morn­ing I pray to God to help me find big di­a­monds,” said Lau­rent Guitili. “One day for sure I will find a big one. Then I will be able to have my own mine and earn all the money I need.”

When one of the min­ers does find a gem, the per­son who holds the con­ces­sion takes it and sells it, giv­ing them back be­tween 30 and 60 eu­ros per carat.

Good qual­ity di­a­monds sell on lo­cally for around three times that.

But at least in Boda min­ers are paid. In the north of the coun­try, where some of the coun­try’s rich­est mines are still in the hands of armed groups, they are forced to hand over what they find at gun­point.

The Kim­ber­ley Process, the in­ter­na­tional body which tries to stop the sale of so-called blood di­a­monds, slapped a ban on the ex­port of di­a­monds from CAR af­ter the over­throw of pres­i­dent Fran­cois Boz­ize in March 2013 by Seleka rebels threw the coun­try into civil war. The mainly Mus­lim in­sur­gents had al­legedly funded their re­volt with il­le­gal di­a­monds.

Seleka and ri­val “anti-bal­aka” Chris­tian mili­tias have since bat­tled to con­trol the mines, the eco­nomic lifeblood of the im­pov­er­ished coun­try, with smug­gling boom­ing.

“If you are armed you can have di­a­monds,” said for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Martin Ziguele. “And with those di­a­monds you can buy more arms and fund your re­bel­lion.”

French and U.N. peace­keep­ing troops have tried to wrest con­trol of the mines from the armed groups so the legal trade in di­a­monds can restart, vi­tal to putting the shat­tered econ­omy back on its feet.

The gov­ern­ment hopes the em­bargo can be partly lifted at the next Kim­ber­ley Process meet­ing in Luanda in An­gola later this month.

Fran­cois Ng­bokoto, of the min­istry of mines, said the ex­port ban may now ac­tu­ally be en­cour­ag­ing smug­gling.

Sec­tar­ian Vi­o­lence

Since the sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence that erupted as the Seleka rebels were driven out, the town of Boda has been di­vided in two, with Mus­lims — who used to con­trol the di­a­mond mines in the area — forced to take refuge in their own en­clave.

The mines are now held by the coun­try’s Chris­tian ma­jor­ity hav­ing passed through the hands of both of the Seleka and the an­tibal­aka mili­tias dur­ing the fight­ing.

“It is bet­ter to work for some­one from here,” one of the Nag­bata said, re­fer­ring to Chris­tian own­ers.

One of­fi­cial told AFP that jeal­ousy at the rel­a­tive wealth of Mus­lims had been one of the “un­der­ly­ing prob­lems” which ag­gra­vated sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence in the re­gion.

That re­sent­ment has not gone away. At Boda’s min­ing po­lice of­fice a sign shows a miner sell­ing a di­a­mond to a bearded Mus­lim mid­dle­man with the warn­ing: “Nag­bata do not sell your di­a­monds to il­le­gal buy­ers.”

Moussa Traore, a Mus­lim dealer who set up in the town two months ago af­ter get­ting a li­cence from the min­istry of mines, in­sisted he sells his di­a­monds legally to the gov­ern­ment’s cen­tral of­fice in the cap­i­tal Ban­gui.

How­ever, min­ers and the au­thor­i­ties claim a huge amount of smug­gling is go­ing on, with Cen­tral African di­a­monds be­ing chan­neled through neigh­bor­ing Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo and Su­dan.

All agree that with­out the boost in the econ­omy that lift­ing the ex­port ban would give, there will be no peace in the coun­try.

“With the em­bargo the price of di­a­monds has dropped,” said Traore. “They need to lift the em­bargo so proper busi­ness can start again.”

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