Diamonds and Blood in Sierra Leone

Diamonds -- the symbol of lasting love in the west -- are behind the chaos and carnage in Sierra Leone today.

Central to the fighting is a struggle over control of the diamond trade which is the source of funds that enable the rebels to make war.

Led by Foday Sankoh, Revolutionary United Front (RUF) forces have terrorized the country with a pattern of sneak attacks on civilians, raping women, abducting children to serve as soldiers, and chopping off the limbs of those considered sympathetic to the government.

From 1991 to 1999, 75,000 died. Half the country's 4.5 million people have been forced to move from their homes, And some 500,000 have become refugees.

Pressed by memory of the Rwandan genocide, the Security Council arranged to enter Sierra Leone with a peace-keeping force of 11,000, severely limiting its ability to attack. When the UN troops tried to enter the diamond areas, rebels confronted and stopped them.

Observers say it will take 100,000 troops to pacify the rebels, who are thought to number 45,000. According to Canadian and Sierra Leone expert Ian Smilie, the RUF has no ideology, political agenda or tribal identity of the sort that usually forms the base for a rebellion.

Indeed, the RUF comes from no single tribe. After purportedly fighting for democracy when a military regime ruled Sierra Leone, it stayed on to keep control of the diamond provinces when democracy was established in 1996. Then in January of 1999, the RUF entered Freetown for two weeks of arson, killing and dismemberment.

That led to the departure of a UN-sponsored Nigerian peace-keeping force which had lost 800 to 1,200 men over two years. When the last Nigerian soldiers pulled out earlier this month, the rebels went on the attack and the peace-keeping force reports that 500 of its number are now missing, presumably taken prisoners by the RUF.

In a summit in Abuja, Nigeria last week, West African leaders expressed support for defending the democratic government in Sierra Leone.

According to a UN spokesman, David Wimhurst, said one reason for the current disarray was that only 8,700 soldiers were actually in place. Their immediate objective, he said, was to secure Freetown.

Residents panicked last week at rumors that the rebel forces were entering the capital, and hundreds of refugees from the countryside are currently entering Freetown, causing more unrest.

Wimhurst said British forces were on the ground in Freetown to evacuate and protect their citizens and had helped calm the city by their very presence. ""We (the UN) will stay," he added.

The UN mission was concerned about Sankoh's disappearance after his compound was stormed by Freetown residents last week. "We need to contact him to persuade him that his current course is a road to nowhere," said Wimhurst.

To avoid a serious defeat and save the people of Sierra Leone, Smilie thinks the Security Council should send in an experienced, combat-ready force. He sees anything less as appeasement.

In his seminal report on Sierra Leone for Partnership Africa Canada, Smillie and his co-authors make recommendations for ending the diamond trade. He notes that diamond wars -- like those being waged in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- cannot be ended until the international community stops the illicit diamond trade which provides cash rebels need to buy arms.

Smillie also wants the Security Council to put diplomatic pressure on countries that make or sell the arms or allow their passage.

De Beers, which operates a world-wide diamond cartel, has sworn not to buy diamonds in conflict areas including Sierra Leone. But Smillie said that DeBeers still maintains a diamond trading company in Liberia knowing that Liberia has no diamonds of its own, only ones from Sierra Leone. Because diamonds are small and easily smuggled, it is difficult to control them.

The Canadian government has appropriated money to develop electronic fingerprinting for diamonds which could precisely identify a diamond's origin, but that process will take some time to develop.

With the world's attention shifted to Sierra Leone, the international community may be able to make some progress in curtailing the deadly trade in diamonds and the grisly war there.


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