Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Conflict Diamonds: Africa's Hidden Pain

Nothing shines like a diamond, and probably nothing else in this world is the source of so much greed and misplaced suffering. To examine the whole issue of what has been happening with illegal diamonds is an eye-opening experience. Doug Farrah's book, "Blood from Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror," is a fascinating expose of the international criminals, moral degenerates and terrorists exploiting the illicit diamond trade in Africa.

Conflict Diamonds: Africa's Hidden Pain

The great reggae artist Peter Tosh was fond of saying, “I am from Africa. I stone you with diamonds. I stone you with gold...” Tosh loved these patois poetic references to Africa, and he was obssessed with the continent’s vast abundance of mineral wealth. In his song “Mama Africa,” he describes the Motherland as “the maker of diamonds, Mama, the maker of gold.” But beyond the profound natural forces that create the mysterious beauty of diamonds and gold are equally astounding transformations in the human world that create the massive demand and multi-billion dollar profits of the global gem industry. Diamonds are cherished worldwide as symbols of love, wealth, power, beauty, glamour and success. But behind all the shine and bling of "ghetto fabulous" rappers, traditional Hollywood glitz and the mass appeal of wedding bands, earrings and necklaces—lies the sad fact that over the years conditions in Africa have made buying diamonds a human rights issue.

South Africa – The Beginnings of a New Industry

Driving through Johannesburg, South Africa, one can’t help noticing heaps of artificial hills and small mountain ridges, layered with golden, yellow-hued dust. Along the main highways, or from downtown skyscrapers, a vast series of rolling plateaus—man-made mountains created by the debris of gold mines—can be seen stretching east to west, as the outer, visible signs of the world’s largest gold deposits. It soon becomes obvious to visitors that this ridge that encompasses Johannesburg, Pretoria and many outlying smaller cities fuels the giant economic engine of South Africa.

Some 250 kilometers to the southwest, in Kimberly, near the confluence of the Vaal and Orange Rivers, is the "Great Hole," another man-made oddity protruding from nature. With a circumference approximately one mile wide, and a depth of about 700 feet, the Great Hole was formed with the removal of more than 22 million tons of earth and stands as a monument to humanity’s hunger for the money to be made from mining diamonds. The gaping hole has a frightening and horrid presence; until it is seen, it is hard to imagine that something of this nature can actually exist, and it invokes archetypal fears of falling in pits or caves or being consumed in great darkness.

The gold reefs stretching around Johannesburg and the Great Hole are symbols of Western civilization’s contact with Africa’s hidden treasures. With frenzied fury, white miners, engineers, merchants and financiers began extracting diamonds in what became the Great Hole without any regard for the benefit of the land or its indigenous African people. As capital consolidated all the claims into the De Beers Mining Company, the kings of the new diamond industry experimented with a system of labor where Africans were confined to the most arduous, backbreaking work and were housed in sparse, prison-like dormitories called hostels. The hostel encampments allowed De Beers to maintain strict control of its African workers and created the foundation of the migrant labor populations—in both the diamond and gold industries—that eventually formed the financial backbone of apartheid.

Throughout the 20th century De Beers amassed billions in profits while paying its black workers pittance wages that were carefully calculated to a level just above the subsistence living conditions of rural African communities. With its gigantic surplus value De Beers formed itself into an unprecedented global diamond syndicate, controlling the production as well as the sale, pricing and distribution of diamonds worldwide. The shrewd capitalist elite at De Beers wielded powerful influence on the consumer demand side of the equation as well. The “A Diamond is Forever” advertising campaign—which De Beers started in 1938—is considered one of the most successful of all time. It created the notion that diamonds symbolize marital love and commitment (and thus never to be resold), and craftily identified diamonds as a luxury item synonymous with the glamour of celebrities, movie stars, royalty and high society.

The 1990’s: The Emergence of “Conflict Diamonds”

By the 1990s--just over a century since its inception--the De Beers diamond industry cartel remained more or less intact, controlling some 60 to 80 percent of the world diamond trade valued at more than $8 billion annually. After the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid, the outcry over the plight of African diamond and gold miners in South Africa subsided and their oppression was more or less forgotten, or perhaps even legitimized—in all its racial ugliness and sad injustices—with the birth of the “New South Africa.” With the low-wage, hostel migrant labor systems firmly entrenched in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana—and with high consumer prices maintained at inflated levels by the De Beers cartel—the tradition of African exploitation by the diamond market forces morphed into new frontiers. As quickly as apartheid seemed to fall apart, various rebel groups, militia leaders and warlords across Africa suddenly discovered the military hardware, wealth and power that diamonds could bring them. In Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, civil wars and regional conflicts were fomented by arms merchants who used the diamond trade to bankroll local armies while making fortunes through subterfuged networks of front companies and transnational corporations. The profits also filled the coffers of Al Qaeda, and possibly Hezbollah–terrorist organizations notorious for their violence and human rights abuses.

In Angola, the infamous UNITA rebel strongman Jonas Savimbi—who previously had been supported by the apartheid government—found in the trade of “conflict diamonds,” a new source of wealth to sustain his guerilla movement. Despite a negotiated peace settlement and years of UN economic, military and diplomatic sanctions, Savimbi and his UNITA forces were able to re-arm and resume the Angolan civil war based on the proceeds of diamond sales from UNITA-held territories. While the resumption of the Angolan civil war in 1998 first drew the attention of the United Nations Security Council to the issue of conflict diamonds, it was not until Savimbi, along with two of his senior brigadiers, was ambushed and murdered by government forces in February 2002 that UNITA was finally disbanded and its diamond trading activities ceased.

While Savimbi’s violent intimidation and megalomania was legendary—it seems the worst conflict diamond abuses occurred in Sierra Leone. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel force headed by strongman Foday Sankoh, waged a civil war in Sierra Leone for 10 years by controlling the diamonds fields on Sierra Leone’s eastern region bordering Liberia. Unfortunately for the people of Sierra Leone, the diamonds there are of very high quality and can be found on the earth’s surface, accessible to anyone with a few basic hand tools. Much like Savimbi, Sankoh was brutal in suppressing anyone who opposed his rule; but Sankoh’s trademark tactic was to amputate the hands of locals to terrorize them into working the diamond fields. Amnesty International estimates that the RUF eventually mutilated about some 20,000 people, hacking off hands, arms and legs and otherwise maiming or butchering their victims with machetes and axes. Working in alliance with Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, Sankoh pushed his blood diamonds on to the world market, exchanging them for weapons and cash that sustained their political power. The RUF’s reign of terror finally came to an end in May 2000 when British and Guinean special forces intervened and crushed the rebel army. Sankoh was arrested and eventually died in captivity while being tried for war crimes, including crimes against humanity, rape, sexual slavery and extermination.

Conflict diamonds also created problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation that had finally witnessed a rebel movement overthrowing Mobuto Sese Seko, a dictator siezed power in a coup in 1965 and ruthlessly pillaged his country of billions of dollars. But shortly after coming to power in 1997, the new government of Laurent Kabila began to experience a wave of insurgency in its eastern regions. Once again, the same pattern evidenced in Angola and Sierra Leone emerged in DRC. The eastern diamond mining regions of the DRC were overwhelmed by rebel factions, primarily the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, or FDLR, which were being supported by neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. The sale of diamonds from the FDLR on the international market provided resources for unending geopolitical conflict between various rebel factions, DRC and Uganda and Rwanda. Despite periodic negotiations and peace agreements, the fighting continues, resulting in the forced displacement of Congolese people living the mining areas, as well myriads of human rights abuses.

Global Activism and Global Action

During most of the Sierra Leone civil war, the international community was somewhat unaware of or indifferent to the atrocities committed by the RUF. Thanks to blistering international human rights campaigns by Amnesty International and Global Witness, public knowledge of the abuses increased, and grotesque pictures of amputated arms and hands threatened to tarnish idealized consumer images of diamonds as symbols of purified marital love. The Amnesty International and Global Witness “blood diamonds” campaigns, along with appeals by the United Nations, had a strong impact on the international diamond industry, which began discussions in 1999 on developing a regulatory framework to trace diamonds from their point of origin. Fuel to the fire was added by a November 2001 Washington Post investigative report by Doug Farrah linking $20 million in conflict diamonds sales to al Qaeda operatives as well as a Lebanese diamond dealer associated with Hezbollah. Farrah’s expose provided strong evidence demonstrating that al Qaeda was transforming its capital assets into hard-to-trace mineral commodities, particularly diamonds and tanzanite.

The industry negotiations culminated in the formation of the World Diamond Council, composed of representatives of diamond traders and diamond manufacturers and government observers, as well as the Kimberly Process, a new certification and paper identification process tracing rough diamonds to their place of origin. Established in November, 2002, the Kimberly Process requires diamond producing countries to provide a Kimberly Process Certificate verifying the origin of all rough diamonds mined within their borders; the certificates must also accompany the sale of diamonds at all subsequent export and import transfers. While the organizational structure and regulatory framework of the Kimberly Process is impressive, some NGOs have complained that the process is flawed as it relies too much on industry self-regulation and is susceptible to corruption at the government certification level. Nonetheless, the attempt at regulation of the massive diamond industry represents a step forward in stemming the dangerous trafficking of blood diamonds.

Sadly, diamond mining in Africa—and the massive profits of the diamond industry—have always been associated with the exploitation and hidden pain of African people. But with the most grevious abuses of the sales of conflict diamonds abating, and the diamond industry moving into a new era of regulation, at least some of Africa’s suffering is being reduced. Newlywed couples admiring the gleaming beauty of their wedding rings seldom give thought to the hapless miners who live and labor in horrible conditions so that comfortable Westerners can enjoy these “precious” gems. African Americans themselves rarely contemplate these connections, or the fact that the high demand and supposed “scarcity” of diamonds has been artificially manufactured by the De Beers cartel. Rappers flaunting their "bling" have unconsciously bought into the De Beers hype, propagating their egos on the twisted machinations of an elaborate profit-making scheme of distorted value.

Undoubtedly, human rights groups have changed the problem and perception of conflict diamonds, causing consumers to look beyond surface appearences into the some of the forces behind the mining and distribution of diamonds. Activists have forced more regulation, more conscience, more concern and compassion on the industry. Perhaps with time, people around the world will also learn to see more of the mystery and humanity of Africa itself in the magnificient reflection, brilliance and beauty of the Motherland's gemstones.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Lost Boys of Sudan: Searching for Peace

One of the "Lost Boys" carrying supplies at Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya.

The “Lost Boys of Sudan” is truly an incredible story. It’s a story about war, cruelty, suffering, endurance, faith and deliverance… In our global village, somehow, the things that happen to James Manyror and Michael Deng are more and more everyone’s responsibility. Meeting and James and Michael was an inspiration--the distance they’ve traveled, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually is unbelievable. The world is changing and evolving at a breakneck pace, and some people are caught up in the vortex. James and Michael should be a reminder to us that while mass events are often beyond of our control, individual lives do matter, and we should do what we can to make a difference.

"Lost Boys" of Sudan: Searching for Peace

In the Western mind, the name “Sudan” denotes a land and a region, as much as a modern nation-state. Extending below the Sahel grasslands on the southern edge of the Sahara, from the “French Sudan” (Mali) east to the Red Sea, the Sudan is a region rich with connotations and images. It is a land of profound history; a place where the mystery of ancient Egypt and Nubia, the pyramids, the great desert and the rest of the African continent all converge. Sudan is also known for the most beautiful shades and darkest hues of the African race; it is also a land where the racial mystery of what is “black,” and what is “African” and what is “Arab” is so fine as to be indistinguishable, yet full of violence, separation and warfare.

How does a place of such beauty and history become rife with conflict and suffering? Over the last 20 years Africa’s largest geographical nation has also become home to its most protracted and brutal war. More than 2 million people have been killed and another 4 million displaced in a civil war where accusations of genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery and crude horrors abound--horrors that are nearly impossible to conceive behind Western TVs, computer screens and the conveniences of modern living.

Most recently, Darfur has commanded world attention, as the combined attacks of the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed militia have bombed, killed, raped and pillaged, carrying out a scorched earth policy that has decimated the livelihood of peaceful, agrarian people. As hundreds of thousands have been driven to destitution and starvation, many world leaders, aid organizations and human rights groups have called for international intervention.

It seems that these massive conflicts, tragedies and displacements have their own special names and places in the history of the African continent. There is the Maaf or the great crisis of slavery; the Mfecane or Defacane, the vast destruction and migrations of tribal groups in the wake of Shaka Zulu’s ruthless expansion; and now a new Diaspora of African Sudanese seeking refuge from continent’s latest conquerors.

But even before we began to hear about the problems of Darfur, another extraordinary saga of suffering was emerging from the Sudanese north-south conflict. The desert of Sudan and Egypt has been a land of epic migrations and the scene of biblical exile and deliverance—and it seems that in our modern times we have witnessed a new mythical tale in the sad story of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

In 1987, the Sudanese government—in coordination with loosely organized militias—intensified its bombing raids and attack on towns and villages the southern region, killing adults and raping and enslaving women and young girls. Thousands of the male children from these pastoral regions were typically herd boys who tended goats and cattle on the outskirts of their villages and by chance survived the devastation. Suddenly homeless orphans, these boys gradually coalesced into larger and larger groups seeking to escape the violence and possible enslavement or conscription. Ranging from about 5 years old to 13 or 14, the wandering bands of “lost boys” had no idea of the terrifying ordeal that lay ahead of them. Originally some 26,000 (according to UN estimates), less than half would survive the agonizing journey on foot that would eventually cover nearly 1,000 miles of desert and months and years of wandering from one village or temporary refugee camp to another.

Dogged by hunger and thirst, the Lost Boys ate leaves and wild berries and sucked water from mud and desert plants to stay alive. Sometimes the pain was overwhelming and some of the boys just collapsed to the ground from exhaustion, or slowly lagged behind, becoming easy prey for lions. When the smallest boys were in too much pain to walk, some of the older boys would pick them up and carry them on their shoulders. Sometimes the Red Cross helicopters dropped food and supplies to them, but aid organizations were unable to land because of the fierce fighting in the region. For the most part, the Lost Boys were on their own.

The boys walked for several months across southern Sudan and into Ethiopia, where they lived for three years in various refugee camps. But fate was not on their side, as Ethiopian insurgents staged a coup d’etat in 1991 and the rebel military forces chased the boys out. In their desperate attempt to escape Ethiopia, many of the Lost Boys drown in the River Gilo, or were eaten by crocodiles or shot.

For more than a year the boys walked back into Sudan, and then south to Kenya, where they finally found relative stability at Kakuma Refugee camp in 1992. Over the past 10 years Kakuma has grown into one of the world’s largest refugee camps and is now home to more than 80,000 dispossessed people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Congo, in addition to the Lost Boys and other Sudanese. While Kakuma provides some security and basic health and educational services for the boys, it is a desolate environment of sweltering 100-degree desert heat, tin-roof mud slab homes and pit toilets. The refugees are unable to cultivate their own crops, and must rely on a low-calorie one meal per day food ration. But the Lost Boys at Kakuma were grateful for their survival, and are eager to take advantage of primary education classes and English lessons in hopes of a better life.

James Manyror knows firsthand about the terrifying experience of the Lost Boys. But sitting in his comfortable Aurora apartment, with his 49ers jersey, baggy jeans and basketball sneakers and the TV blaring ESPN NBA highlights, you would never guess that he was among the thousands who made that harrowing journey through the desert. Manyror looks like an ordinary African American teenager or hip-hop kid. His dimpled smile and easy going laugh show no signs of someone who lost his innocence and childhood in the Lost Boys’ ordeal. If you ask him about the past, he’s eager to tell his story and share his amazement where life has taken him.

“Life was really a struggle. When I think back then, it looks like a nightmare—you can’t figure out where you are. You can’t imagine that year,” Manyror said, as his voice suddenly becomes animated. “I never thought that I could sit here. on a couch like this, in a place like this and go to school. We really struggled and we didn’t know where we would end up.

“Sometimes trying to explain it is really difficult. There was no food some days; there was no water some days; sometimes you are sick and you don’t know if you’re going to stay alive.”

Manyror’s roommate Michael Deng is also a Lost Boy from Paireng, the same village that Manyror was also born in. They come from an isolated rural area with no electricity, no TV or radio, no running water. The two boys made the long journey together in allied groups, and have a very deep bond and friendship; they came to Denver together from Kakuma in 2001. In four years they've gone from learning how to use can openers and telephones to attending college and mastering the look and feel of American youth. Deng is more introspective and reserved, but with his fly shirt. crisp pants, handsome boots and smooth haircut, he looks ready to hit Pierre’s Supper Club or the Casbah on the prowl. But when he speaks, Deng appears serious and thoughtful, carefully considering his words.

“You can’t imagine it,” Deng answers ponderously, replying to my question about his experience during the war years. He speaks slowly and shakes his head in disbelief. “I can’t explain it. It would take an entire year or two years. It was such a large history that you cannot cover it in one day.”

Manyror then proceeds to describe the general events of their great trek. The government attacks in 1987, their escape to Ethiopia, being chased out of Ethiopia back into Sudan, and finally walking all the way across the Kenyan border to Kakuma. He said they had nothing when they left Paireng, but sometimes people would give them supplies along the way. Language was often a barrier and at times they could only communicate with hand gestures; sometimes villagers were openly hostile. One of his worst experiences happened when they were leaving Ethiopia and a local gang opened fire on them.

“After we left Pinchalla, when we were in Kopita, we were attacked by local villagers—it was a very tragic attack. One of my friends was killed that night—oh man, I was so scared,” Manyror said with a tremble in his voice, adding that he had many nightmares long after the event. “They started shooting at night. Nobody saw them come up to us.”

Deng seemed calmer and less traumatized by the attack, and explained that the villagers were “shooting randomly” and those who happened to remain prone, close to the ground, survived; the unfortunate boys who stood up and ran were killed. Manyror was terribly shaken by the loss of his close friend, who they buried later that day.

“I think it was his day to go,” Manyror shrugged.

When I asked both young men about the roots of the conflict and the perceived racial differences between the Sudanese Arabs and Africans, Deng let go a bitter, sarcastic laugh, again shaking his head in disbelief. Manyror however, was more inclined to discuss the political context.

“When you say you don’t see a (racial) difference between (the Sudanese) Arabs and Africans, you are right. But political differences play a role. It comes to religion—the Arabs think that they are Moslem, and the others are infidels,” Manyror pointed out, explaining that the Arab government has imposed Islamic fundamentalist Sharia law and controls job opportunities and economic development. “Some who are a little lighter think they are separate from the south, but it is heritage that is the biggest difference.”

Deng and Manyror are from the Dinka tribe, the largest ethnic group in Sudan, and they both hail from the Ruweng clan of the Dinka. Like many of the Lost Boys, both young men are not quite sure of their ages or birthdays. Manyror says he was born in 1979, and was 12 or 13 by the time they made it to Kakuma in 1992. Deng says he was born in 1980.

True to his solemnity and contemplative character, Deng speaks of becoming a priest or pastor. He works during the day at Safeway and takes theology courses from the Catholic Church at night. Manyror works as a Certified Nursing Assistant—he studied nursing at Aurora Community College—and intends to transfer to a university to earn his Bachelor degree. Both young men say they are so busy with school and work that they have very little time for TV, movies web surfing or other kinds of youth entertainment.

Manyror returned to Kakuma for two months in April and May of 2005, and he has now become consumed with a vision of starting an organization to help other Lost Boys at Kakuma. There is a continuing influx of refugees from Sudan, and after talking with Kakuma officials and local church groups, Manyror would like to assist in a project to construct 10 dormitory buildings and 10 classrooms for some 200 young orphans who are now semi-permanent residents at the camp. Like Manyror and Deng, the orphans will receive some education, and many of them may be resettled in the United States, Great Britain, Australia and other countries. Manyror calls his organizations the Sudanese American Orphaned Rehabilitation Organization (SAORO) and has applied for tax-exempt status as a non-profit. The organization plans to launch its web site——in March.

Manyror is very excited about the prospects for SAORO and he believes he is in a position to make a difference for Kakuma, which he describes as a “horrible”—if relatively safe and secure—place. He hopes more Americans will learn about the crisis in Sudan and will help the plight of Sudanese refugees.

“People in the United States hear all kinds of stories in the news—good stories and bad stories. If they don’t hear these stories, they won’t know what is happening.” Manyror explained, saying he believes “people of goodwill” can help the Lost Boys. “I think for me, not to get this story out, is not an option.”