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Death stalks a field of gems

Dixon is a Times staff writer.

Ronald seems a sober, respectable, church-on-Sunday type. Not the kind you’d find prospecting for diamonds here in Zimbabwe’s wild east, a world of swaggering foreigners, dirty money and shoot-to-kill police. Not the sort who’d utter movie-script lines like this one: “You can make $15,000 or $20,000 in 30 minutes. But you can die within seconds.”

Ronald, like the rest of Zimbabwe, has caught Africa’s nastiest ailment -- diamond fever.

Sleepy towns such as Mutare have blinked awake to find their quiet streets buzzing with opportunists and black marketeers. Every day, illicit miners show up at the hospital with gaping bullet wounds and flimsy excuses for how they got them. Characters straight out of “Blood Diamond” cruise like sharks.

But the biggest sharks are nowhere to be seen: Officials of President Robert Mugabe’s regime are looting the diamonds, industry sources and members of Zimbabwe’s security services say.

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Not only are they personally enriching themselves with one of the few natural resources still left in this ruined country, party fat cats may be finding life support in the diamond riches, Western diplomats and analysts fear, and gaining one more motive to cling to power.

“I think the political implications are very interesting,” said a diplomat based in Harare, the capital. “Right now, the government’s getting very little. If it can regularize this in some way, it could really prop things up for a while. It could give them some time to pursue their interests and just keep going.”

The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid political problems with Zimbabwe’s government. Others who were willing to discuss the diamond trade declined to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Industry and security sources say government leaders have their own syndicates to dig and trade diamonds on the black market.

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“The diamond game is the filthiest game in town and everyone’s into it,” says one source familiar with the gem industry. “It’s not even semi- organized chaos. It’s a bunch of thieves who backstab each other.

“A lot of leaders of the political regime are involved in trading. They have their own diggers and traders. But it’s all to their personal account. They’ve all got a vested interest in chaos.”

Regime cracks down

Diplomats, industry sources and some nongovernmental agencies believe the Marange field here could be one of the most significant diamond discoveries in decades.

Mugabe’s regime is certainly behaving as if it is. In mid-November, the government sent in the military to crack down on unsanctioned miners. Soldiers even fired on miners from helicopters, local sources say. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change says nearly 140 people have been killed.

One insider close to the ruling party said the scope of the crackdown was a measure of how significant the diamonds were to the regime.

“I don’t think they would expend such resources if there was not something significant there,” he says.

A prison official in Mutare said top figures in the ruling ZANU-PF party and security officials are running the illegal diamond trade here.

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“The people in the police, prisons service, army and CIO [Central Intelligence Organization] have got groups of people who are working for those lieutenants, known as syndicates,” says the official. “Usually these high-ranked officers in the armed forces are working for the ministers, governors and other ZANU-PF bigwigs.”

The exploration rights at the Marange field were initially held by a subsidiary of the diamond giant De Beers, which let its license expire in early 2006. The rights were then taken up by a British company, African Consolidated Resources.

In late 2006, a rush began, driven by the large quantities of diamonds close to the surface -- making the site almost unique. The government promptly evicted the company in much the same manner it evicted white farmers from their land in 2000. Today, the site is ostensibly being developed by the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp., but most of the gems find their way onto the black market.

The British company continues to pursue a legal battle in the High Court over the right to mine the area, but in cases involving property rights in the past, High Court judges -- appointed by Mugabe -- have sided with the government.

Almost irresistible

In a country where the paralyzed economy offers few opportunities, diamonds are almost irresistible. Ronald, 31, who had given up working for an insurance firm for black-market currency dealing, was drawn into illegal mining. He gave only his first name, fearing possible jail.

Ronald says he saw five unsanctioned miners, including two women, shot to death by police on the diamond field late last month as they fled carrying large sacks of soil. One of those killed was a policeman mining illegally.

“It’s like war,” Ronald says.

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At dawn that same day, he had been in the diamond field filling bags with dirt to carry off and later sieve. “We heard a gunshot. It was very close. Then everybody, including myself, started to run, carrying our bags of soil. We were running and running. . . . We were more than 50 and they were firing shots at us.”

They scattered, but Ronald didn’t want to drop his sack, thinking he might have a gigantic diamond. Finally, exhausted, he ditched it to save himself.

“That was the day I thought, ‘Maybe this is the end of my life.’ ” Yet he went back in.

It is filthy, back-breaking work, a shock after his peaceful insurance job and black-market money dealing. The hastily dug tunnels can be deep, and they often collapse, burying prospectors alive.

Opinions differ on the significance of the Marange field. Some put its worth in billions of dollars annually; others estimate this at under $50 million.

Local industry figures say that in the last 12 months, high-quality diamonds have increasingly been turning up. The Reserve Bank chief, Gideon Gono, said last month that more than 500 syndicates were operating in Marange, and estimated that the government was losing $1.2 billion in diamond revenue every month.

But a Belgian-based diamond expert scoffed at the figure -- equivalent to global diamond production -- and said 90% of the gems were low-quality industrial diamonds.

‘Dangerous’

Brilliant flame trees line the streets of Mutare, like dawdling women bearing scarlet parasols. Intelligence men are everywhere. Foreigners brag loudly and flirt with local women in restaurants and bars. A car draws up and a plump fellow nods hello.

“Ah, things are tough, eh? Things are dangerous,” he says, grinning slyly. Pause. “You wanna buy dah-mons?”

It’s a place of treachery and swirling rumor: People talk of a $5-million diamond found here recently, or the woman who made her fortune trading cabbages for diamonds.

When the rush started, miners were loath to leave their diggings even for water: It was common for them to swap a diamond for a bottle of water, or so the story goes.

Industry sources whisper the names of notorious international diamond dealers said to have fingers in the Marange pie.

The fenced area in Marange operated by the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp. is known locally as “Mai Mujuru’s Breast,” meaning the breast of Mama Mujuru, a reference to the country’s corpulent vice president, Joyce Mujuru. You need just a short time there, people tell you breathlessly, and you’ll have a diamond the size of a bird’s egg.

“It’s a ZANU-PF place,” says opposition lawmaker Pishai Muchauraya. “No one is allowed to get in there. If you’re a special person, you will go there and you will be allowed just 20 minutes. That’s where you can get clear diamonds.”

But Ronald, the illegal miner, says he paid a bribe to a policeman to spend several hours at Mai Mujuru’s Breast. He got only one tiny diamond, which he sold for $150.

A $30,000 deal

Itai, 28, got into trading diamonds 18 months ago. He smuggles them in his mouth across the border to sell to Lebanese and Israeli dealers in Manica, Mozambique. He’s bought two houses and five cars. Three months ago, he says, he and his aunt traded a clear 30-carat stone as big as his thumbnail for $30,000 in a hotel-room deal with an Israeli.

He says most of the illegal miners are well educated: “They’re teachers, nurses, soldiers, policemen and civil servants.”

The prison official said the real aim of the recent crackdown was to give the syndicates operated by top ruling party figures free rein.

“In effect, these operations are not to restore order but to make sure [the syndicates] can take the diamonds,” the official says. “But what is devastating us is that they’re actually killing people. They’re shooting to kill.”

Political violence and power struggles in Manicaland province, where the Marange diamonds are found, suggest how important the area is to Mugabe and ZANU-PF. Manicaland was one of the areas most severely hit by political violence after the elections in March, which saw ZANU-PF lose the Mutare council, the mayoral post and 20 parliamentary seats there to the Movement for Democratic Change.

Although Zimbabwe’s diamonds are not technically “blood diamonds,” or ones that fuel wars, they are bloody in nature.

‘I might die’

Isaac, 38, and Richard, 32, brought their brother Cledious to the hospital after he was shot in the back while mining illegally. The three brothers and two cousins were in a tunnel at about 6 a.m. when police threw in a tear-gas canister.

“We started running away. He was the last to come out. We heard a gunshot and we looked back and saw our brother on the ground,” Isaac says. Police took him to their camp and dumped him, unattended and bleeding profusely.

“The base wasn’t guarded,” Richard says. “I went in to collect him. We carried him five kilometers [about three miles] to our base camp. He was crying, saying, ‘I might die.’ ”

The brothers assured him that he would live. In their hearts, though, they fear he faces a slow and painful death.

But seeing fortunes being made all around them, they won’t give up mining, even if their brother dies.

“If one person is killed,” Richard says, “there’s more for the rest.”

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com


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