- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

CHAMPE, Liberia

The diamond pits of Champe are a 10-hour hike from the nearest paved road. Yet thousands of impoverished Liberians are willing to wade through the knee-deep mud and human excrement when stones worth $200,000 are lying in the bush.

For many of the young men who trudge through the forest, it may be their last journey. Cholera has claimed scores, possibly hundreds of lives. Malaria is rife and crime is rising.

Many of the miners are ex-combatants, survivors of 14 years of vicious civil war, when child soldiers manned roadblocks made from human intestines and self-appointed generals supplied them with drugs and weapons.

“There are five people in my group,” said Aaron Teah, 30, who used to fight for ousted President Charles Taylor, but was disarmed as part of a peace deal in 2003.

A United Nations-sponsored program was supposed to reintegrate men like Mr. Teah into everyday life, but with unemployment at 85 percent, many former combatants are regrouping around their old commanders and heading to the mines.

“Generals” Black Cat, Minicom, Blessing and Te are all running groups of prospectors deep in the bush, away from the watchful eyes of 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers who currently patrol the country.

“There are [commanders from former rebel armies] LURD [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy], MODEL [Movement for Democracy in Liberia], government forces in there, many people. We are all friends now … we give the general the stones, and he gives us some money, maybe $100, and rice and shovels,” said Mr. Teah, who said he had found about 200 “pieces” in the last two weeks.

‘Blood diamonds’

So-called “blood diamonds” have historically been a source of funding for the warlords of West Africa. Mr. Taylor, the former president of Liberia, took over the mines of nearby Sierra Leone by sponsoring the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group notorious for its brutality even in this region.

Apart from diamond trading, the RUF was infamous for hacking arms and legs from civilians, including children, and forcing family members to rape each other while jeering rebels looked on.

In 2003, a U.N.-sponsored war-crimes tribunal indicted Mr. Taylor for his role in Sierra Leone and the Liberian president resigned and went into exile. A transitional power-sharing government took over in Monrovia, and Liberia is now preparing for elections this month.

Seeking to stop the uncontrolled looting of Liberia’s resources that financed previous conflicts, the U.N. has imposed an export ban on diamonds, due to be reviewed in December.

Al Qaeda money laundry

David Crane, the former chief prosecutor of the international court set up in Sierra Leone, has said there is credible evidence that al Qaeda launders money through the West African diamond trade.

Certainly, the boom has attracted buyers from across the world. Here in the town of Champe, businessmen from Mali, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast live side-by-side in squalor.

A dealer from Gambia offers to show his wares as three Mauritanians lie clutching their stomachs on a bare concrete floor.

A few hours away in the county capital, an American buyer sits drinking cheap whiskey in a run-down motel with a former rebel from Sierra Leone’s RUF. Business is brisk: Within a half-hour, four diamond sellers and the local official from the Ministry for Mines have come to see him.

“Most of the quality — about 80 percent — is low,” he said, displaying a handful of gems he plans to smuggle to Belgium. “But of the other 20 percent — you get some good stones, and some that are very correct. Some can go for $200,000.”

Since diamonds were discovered here last June, everyone has been making money. The miners say that they pay $50 to $100 in “taxes” to local officials, a claim vehemently denied by the local mining superintendent, Christian Wlejleh.

“They said in a report to the U.N. [that] I have made $25,000, but that is not true,” he said. “There are seven bush roads [paths] leading into the mines. Am I an elephant that I can watch all the exits? Must I argue with the ex-combatants so my children will be fatherless? They have a knife at their side.”

For local residents, the diamond rush has proved a mixed blessing. The influx of cash has also brought crime and disease to the small farming community, which used to survive by pressing palm oil.

Cholera concerns

A suspected outbreak of cholera, caused by drinking contaminated water, killed many people last month, but the U.N. and the Liberian government have forbidden charity groups from digging wells or pit latrines, hoping filth and disease will discourage the illegal miners.

Certainly, many are sick. The nearest clinic is an eight-hour walk away, and there is no source of clean water. Yet for every miner who has died in the bush, a 100 more have arrived to take his place.

“The general has sponsored me, given me a shovel, food, rice and oil. If you want a little money like 1,000 Liberty (about $17) to buy something, he gives it,” said Roland Toe, 43, who recently transferred his group of gold miners to the Champe area. “Yesterday, I was sick. Today, I am sick. But I have four children, what else can I do?”

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