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Inside the battle for Zimbabwe’s blood diamonds

However arrogant the conduct of British supermodel Naomi Campbell last week at the war crimes trial of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor – and however it showed the media to be mesmerised repugnantly by sensation and the cult of celebrity – she unconsciously focused attention back on the murky underworld of the trade in “blood diamonds”.

Ten years after a coalition of civil society, government and industry forces gathered in Kimberley, South Africa, to reform the anarchic, poisonous and deadly international diamond industry, greed and cruelty still guarantee that many of the sparkling gems are infused with human blood. The ugly problem – recently dramatised in the Hollywood film Blood Diamond, set in Sierra Leone and starring Leonardo DiCaprio – has yet to be confined to the dustbin of history.

The most controversial diamonds today come from a 46 square mile patch of Zimbabwe where hundreds of impoverished Zimbabweans have been slaughtered by forces loyal to President Robert Mugabe in a fight over an unpredicted gem bonanza.

Commenting on these diamonds, from Marange in eastern Zimbabwe, Ian Smillie, the Canadian architect of the so-called Kimberley Process certification scheme, said: “They are blood diamonds. They have blood all over them.”

Smillie, who was the first witness at Taylor’s trial in The Hague – Taylor faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war – resigned from the Kimberley Process scheme two months ago, arguing that the tottering system is no longer credible. Mugabe has shot it full of holes, but Smillie said other countries, notably the Ivory Coast and Venezuela, are also emasculating the process.

Marange lies in an area of shallow river silt deposits; until 2006 the concessions were owned by the London and Johannesburg-based De Beers Group, the world’s leading diamond company, which was founded by Cecil Rhodes. But then, worried by Zimbabwe’s worsening political crisis, the firm let its concession lapse.

The Marange deposits were bought by a British company, African Consolidated Resources, which never began operations. Peasants in the desperately poor country, where the unemployment rate tops 80%, then moved into the area and, with picks and shovels and hard labour, proved that De Beers had let go of a bonanza worth up to US$1.7 billion a year.

“It’s a bigger and more important find than most people anticipated,” confessed De Beers’ international relations director, Andrew Bone. “We perhaps didn’t do as much surveying as we could have done.”

A roughly estimated 10,000 to 30,000 peasant diamond miners traded their Marange gems through Lebanese, Israeli, Chinese, Indian and Belgian middlemen who based themselves in the nearby mountain town of Mutare. They smuggled the stones out to Johannesburg and Maputo, the Mozambique capital, from where they were laundered into the world’s major processing centres and sold as non-Zimbabwe-sourced diamonds.

The Mugabe government confiscated the African Consolidated Resources concession in 2006 and began moving soldiers and police in to Marange to clear out the peasant miners. In a particularly bitter and cynical irony, the Marange operation has been commanded by Air Marshal Perence Shiri, Zimbabwe’s air force chief. In the 1980s, as a ruthless young officer known to his men as “Black Jesus”, he supervised the massacres of 25,000 Ndebele villagers in western Zimbabwe. Shiri led Mugabe’s elite North Korean-trained 5th Brigade against the Ndebele, and at the end of 2008 he unleashed one of the 5th Brigade’s commando units against the Marange miners.

In a report entitled Diamonds In The Rough, published last year, pressure group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: “The first three weeks of the operation were particularly brutal. The army killed at least 214 miners [in that period]. The army has also been engaged fully and openly in the smuggling of diamonds, thereby perpetuating the very crime it was deployed to prevent.”

A villager told HRW: “I ran to the hills [when Shiri’s commandoes attacked]. Unfortunately, we ran into a group of soldiers who marched us at gunpoint back to the fields and ordered us to collect the bodies of dead miners whom they had shot.

“We gathered 37 bodies and piled them in an army truck and took them to the edge of Nyazila village. There we found two more army trucks offloading 35 bodies. The soldiers then ordered us to dig a grave and bury the bodies. We buried 72 bodies in that grave.”

Police officers, under Superintendent OC Govo, have also played a role in the Marange massacres. One officer told HRW that Govo had ordered his men to “shoot on sight” any peasants found in the diamond fields.

He went on: “Superintendent Govo said we were all too lenient … He then said he was going to show us how to deal decisively with local miners. That night he led us into a well-known camp of local miners. First, he pointed a searchlight into the air and then he began to shoot randomly at the sleeping miners. I saw him shoot and kill three miners. Many others ran into the night. He told us to leave the bodies, saying the other miners would return to bury their dead.”

Theoretically, the army and police were “restoring order” on Mugabe’s orders. Again theoretically, the Marange diamond concessions were taken over by the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation. In practice the operations are controlled by top officials of Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF party – including the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe (known as “The First Shopper” for her extravagant spending habits), and Zimbabwe’s vice-president Joyce Mujuru, who adopted the war name “Spill Blood” when she was a young guerrilla fighting Zimbabwe’s former white minority government.

Grace Mugabe was named as a shareholder in Mbada Diamonds, one of two little-known companies registered last week by Mines Minister Obert Mpofu to operate in the nominally state-owned Marange fields.

Many of the peasants driven from their diggings by Shiri and Govo now endure a form of slavery, working the Marange deposits for Mujuru, Grace Mugabe and the military. Dozens die when poorly built mining trenches collapse and bury the diggers alive, and in occasional security force assaults.

HRW has now issued a new report, Deliberate Chaos: Ongoing Human Rights Abuses In The Marange Diamond Fields Of Zimbabwe. This states that police and military still perpetuate abuses in Marange – including forced labour, torture, beatings and harassment – which go uninvestigated or prosecuted by authorities.

Also, more than 4000 Marange villages are being forcibly resettled to make way for diamond operations, contravening international standards on forced relocation.

HRW, Smillie and other activists have also raised the alarm about the role of Abbey Chikane, a South African businessman appointed by the Kimberley Process certification board to devise a “joint work plan” to bring Zimbabwe into compliance with the Kimberley rules. Chikane is expected this week to sanction and certify the legal export by Zimbabwe of two consignments of Marange diamonds.

Calling for an independent inquiry into just who Chikane is and how he became the special envoy of the Kimberley Process, the new HRW report said: “Failure by the Kimberley Process to suspend Zimbabwe’s membership or continue to ban the certification of Marange diamonds for export would destroy the body’s legitimacy and credibility. The diamonds continue to benefit a few senior people in the government and their accomplices rather than the people of Zimbabwe as a whole.”

The report added: “Marange diamonds are a cash cow for a few … The prevailing confusion, lawlessness and chaos enables a few individuals to benefit at the expense of the nation.”

HRW said Chikane was recently briefed in the Holiday Inn in Mutare by Farai Maguwu, director of the Centre for Research and Development, one of the few local Zimbabwean organisations daring to investigate the Marange situation and continuing human rights abuses by the military.

Maguwu’s family was beaten up by police and has gone into hiding, while he has been charged with giving Chikane state secrets. Chikane has not spoken up to defend Maguwu.

Zimbabwean human rights workers believe that the Kimberley Process envoy is implicated in Maguwu’s arrest, having “shopped” him to the police after the pair met to discuss the Marange abuses.

Independent weekly newspaper The Zimbabwean reported this week that Maguwu’s recent release on bail is widely believed to be the result of a trade off between the government and Kimberley authorities, who set Maguwu’s release as a precondition for the approval of the impending Zimbabwe diamond sales.

With Chikane and his team expected to arrive in Zimbabwe today, The Zimbabwean said a massive clean-up by police is going on of forced labourers working in Marange for the elite.

“People are in the mountains. They were chased by soldiers and the police,” said Admire Tumburwa, a villager at a Marange village called Hotsprings. “They were chased away. It was a serious operation.”

Smillie said Mugabe and his Zimbabwean elite are about to get from Chikane exactly what they wanted – the legal right to export diamonds. But he added: “A number of governments won’t play this game much longer. Either the Kimberley Process has to shape up or it will collapse. It’s letting all manner of crooks off the hook.”

Next to Zimbabwe, Smillie says it is Venezuela that poses one of the most significant threats to the process. President Hugo Chavez’s government stopped issuing Kimberley Process certificates in 2005 for its diamonds and in 2008, amidst increasing criticism, decided to pre-empt expulsion and suspended itself from the monitoring scheme. All Venezuela’s diamonds, mined in questionable circumstances, are now smuggled out through neighbouring Guyana and Brazil where they are given false Kimberley Process certificates and sold on the open international market.

One of the many problems with the Kimberley Process is it was negotiated in order to stem the trade in diamonds that was fuelling civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola. It defined blood diamonds as gems “used by rebel movements or their allies to finance conflict aimed at undermining legitimate governments”. That classification does not apply in Zimbabwe, where human rights groups and others are concerned not about civil war against a government, but about a government’s war on its own people.

HRW investigator Arvind Ganesan said: “The problem is that Kimberley has not evolved to deal with the problems of the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood star Mia Farrow will give evidence tomorrow against Charles Taylor, continuing the saga at The Hague. Amid allegations that South Africa may have supplied weapons that were channelled to Sierra Leonean rebels in exchange for Taylor diamonds, Farrow is set to confirm that in 1997 Taylor gave blood diamonds as a present to Naomi Campbell, who handed them on to Jeremy Ratcliffe, the director of Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund.

Ratcliffe last week admitted receiving the diamonds and then handing three of them to the South African police. One of innumerable questions yet to be answered is why it took Ratcliffe 13 years to admit receiving the blood diamonds. With many twists and turns yet to come, this is a story that will run and run.

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