Mining Bloody Diamonds
Inside Sierra Leone's rebeld-held hellhole

Charles Taylor is accused of arming the thugs who now control 50 percent of the country - in exchange for "blood diamonds". Reporting for NEWSWEEK, Lutz C. Kleveman took a look.

When Maj. Black Man, as he calls himself, stepped to the rim of the 10- meter deep mud pit, he wasn't the least troubled by what he saw. "Ha! I told you," the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) officer exclaimed. "Not a single soldier." Surveying hundreds of dirt-smeared, mostly school-age boys toiling with shovels, buckets and sieves, a smug grin distorted his face. He blithely ignored the half-dozen armed guards, AK-47s in hand, who watched over them. "Oh, the guards? They just assure the security of the diggers,"' Black Man said, then chuckled, as if amused by his explanation.

"I dig in the fields from early morning until the sun goes down," said 13-year-old Sahr Koroma, as he drove his spade into the slimy red mud. The RUF has controlled the Kono fields since it drove out the government in December 1998 in the 10-year civil war devastating Sierra Leone. Sahr's parents both died during the fighting. "I enjoy digging very much," the boy said mechanically, his eyes downcast, as Maj. Black Man stood behind hirn. Then he whispered: "One day I am going to find a really big diamond."

Just what would happen to Sahr's diamond is what worries international observers. U.N. reports suggest it would end up in the pockets of RUF commanders who would then trade it for weapons - an assertion RUF officials deny. "(The diggers) can sell their stones to whomever they like," the major insisted, adding that some diggers do give their harvest to the rebels. "After all, we provide their security and fight for their rights. Our revolution is all about liberating the people of Sierra Leone from exploitation.'

And from all-too-curious questioners, it seemed, as pistol-toting RUF "internal-security officers" arrived on red motorcycles. One fattish boy in a black WANNA RAISE SOME HELL?! T-Shirt, Colonel Alpha, told the reporter his security on the pit's slippery slopes could not be guaranteed. Brandishing his revolver he warned: "I have used this before." Only Maj. Black Man's energetic intervention sent the pistols back to their holsters. "We have to show the outside world that we want peace now;' he said.

Increasingly isolated, RUF commanders are trying to shed their Army's image as a bloodthirsty mob, bent on chopping off limbs and genitals. Cut off from Taylor, who is under growing international pressure, and faced with the British-trained Sierra Leonean Army itching for a final score-settling, the RUF leadership has appealed to the United Nations to mediate peace talks.The rebels, who recently came under heavy attacks from the Guinean Army and pro-government militias, now seem prepared to see peacekeepers deploy deep inside their territory. But the United Nations is cautious: a year ago, RUF fighters took about 500 U.N. troops hostage. And many skeptics suspect the rebels want to use the United Nations as a shield. "The fighting must end because the people are suffering," said Col. Gabriel Mas- saquoi, the RUF's university-educated spokesman. Of the diamonds, he added, "I do not deny that we mine them and with the profits take care of our soldiers. But we do not buy arms ... We pay teachers to run schools, and supply hospitals with drugs."

But in Kono children carried neither books nor pencils, but shovels, sieves - and guns. There was hardly a grown-up to be seen in what resembled a vast, apocalyptic boys' camp. The town seemed to be run by pimply teenagers. When asked if it was possible to visit a school, Black Man suggested a trip to the city hospital instead. The ride through the center of Kono revealed the full extent of destruction. A handful of buildings remained amid rows of charred, bullet-rid- dled ruins. On the town's desolate main square, haggard women walked past smiling posters of RUF leader Foday Sankoh, now in a government jail in Freetown: LEADING THE NATION DOWN THE PATH OF DEMOCRACY.

At the run-down hospital, seven RUF fighters who had been shot lay on the floor. The building held a few rusty beds and no equipment; the director admitted he bad no anesthetics: "We just cut the bullets out; that works."

At dusk, as diamond diggers shuffled home from the fields, the dealers came out. "None of them is Liberian; the border is closed." Black Man claimed. One of them, Alhaji Muba of Mali, said, "It is good business for us. We smuggle the gems home or sell them on the black market in Freetown." From under his colorful galabia, Muba fetched a matchbox with two 5-carat stones. Did he buy them from diggers or rebels? "From whoever sells," he said, competing with Maj. Black Man for the broadest grin.