This beautiful place is where I spent Christmas 1974; it happens to be a diamond mine in Sierra Leone.
Conflict diamonds, blood diamonds, these terms had not yet been coined when I lived in Sierra Leone. However, diamonds? Everyone knew about them. In Kono, where the above mine was located, people panned for diamonds whenever possible. At night you had to drive slowly along the dirt roads so as not to run someone over. Everywhere you could see the lights of the miners. Everywhere the necessary equipment was for sale. It was like the North American gold rush; everyone and their brother desperately seeking the diamond that would make them rich.
The stories were wild too — of someone hiding a diamond in his mouth, spitting it into an orange when he feared being discovered, and then the orange tossed and the diamond lost forever. Or of someone who swallowed one and then — well, it didn’t end well for him.
In the early 1990s a group of us former Peace Corps volunteers, Sierra Leoneans, and others began meeting here in NYC and in DC, trying to figure out how to get the world to notice the horrible things that were starting to happen in this beautiful country. It seemed hopeless; attention was NOT paid. We eventually became one group, The Friends of Sierra Leone.
For me the worst time was in January 1999. Americans were paying tremendous attention to the horrors of Kosovo. It was only when Freetown was invaded that they finally paid attention to the horrors that were happening there.
I’m not sure I can bear to go see the new movie Blood Diamond. I understand now why my father cannot see Holocaust movies. I lived in Freetown for two years, it was horrible enough to see the actual images of the invasion, seeing a fictionalized recreation of all of it — I’m not sure I can do it.
But about those diamonds. Just so you know, a certificate that the one you bought is not a conflict diamond, not a blood diamond — don’t count on it. If Kono was wild and unruly in 1974, it can only be worse now. Please keep in mind that there are not policemen on every corner checking that the diamonds are honestly mined, honestly bought, honestly sold. No way. Those stories I remember of swollowed and lost diamonds are propably laughable compared to those of today.
In the midst of the war I was in another country and unexpectedly brought to a diamond factory — a place where they were cleaned, polished, and prepared as jewelry. I refused to go in. The country was far from Africa and my fellow tourists looked at me askance and I did understand how they must have seen me — smug and sanctimonious. But I didn’t care. Just being outside that factory made me sick to my stomach.
I just listened to a NPR program on blood diamonds in which someone mentioned that Tiffany has its own diamond mines as a way to assure their customers that their products are conflict and blood free.
Whatever. Just please don’t give me any diamonds this holiday season. Thanks, but no thanks.