Zimbabwe's ?blood diamonds'

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The discovery of diamonds in Zimbabwe has led to more misery in a country that's already seen a lot of hardship. And despite claims to the contrary, Zimbabwe's government insists the diamonds are ethical. But on a recent trip to the country, Laura Lynch found disturbing evidence that the gems are destroying the lives of many.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. It's said that Africa is cursed with its resources. Diamonds in particular have played a disturbing role in recent history. They've been used to fund brutal wars in Angola and Liberia, for instance. In 2006 diamonds were discovered in eastern Zimbabwe. It could have been a cause for celebration in that impoverished country, but on a recent trip there, The World's Laura Lynch found evidence the gems are destroying lives. Here's the first of a two part report on what some are calling Zimbabwe's blood diamonds.

LAURA LYNCH: Faith, hope and the power of prayer transcend doubt and despair every Sunday morning in this deeply religious nation. Here at the Methodist Church in the city of Mutare, the men and women in the choir dance up the aisle as they lead parishioners in song. Mutare sits on the border with Mozambique on the eastern reaches of Zimbabwe. The city was born 113 years ago in the midst of a gold rush. So people here know something about the frenzy mining discoveries can bring. Still, nothing prepared Reverend Obert Shatayi for the transformation that spread through his town in 2007.

REVEREND OBERT SHATAYI: Money was everywhere. Children leaving school and even some teachers even quitting their job going to diamond.

LYNCH: The discovery of a massive diamond field called Marange just south of the city lured thousands to dig for treasure. They swept onto the field day and night. It took the government more than a year to send in the Army to force the freelance miners out. Now the field is guarded 24 hours a day. Two companies are in charge of what the government says is a legal and well run operation. But Reverend Shatayi is skeptical. He says he hears stories from his parishioners, repeated tales of smuggling and violence.

SHATAYI: It is my prayer and hope that corruption that is in this nation will come to an end at one point and these resources are well managed so that every Zimbabwean is going to benefit.

LYNCH: That is a prayer for the future. In Zimbabwe right now, the spoils go to very few. The young and newly wealthy of Mutare pull up to a local restaurant in their Mercedes and four by fours and let their music systems do the talking. This is a well known hang out for the illegal diamond diggers there called gwejas. What they do is risky, but it's also a quick ticket out of the grinding poverty here. One of the gwejas agrees to tell me how it works. Do you dig for diamonds?

DAVIDSON: Yeah I do dig for diamonds, yeah.

LYNCH: How long have you been doing that?

DAVIDSON: Since 2007.

LYNCH: Davidson is 30 years old and married. He used to be a store manager in Harare, but he came east when a friend told him about the riches lying in the ground here. Davidson says it was dangerous work from day one.

DAVIDSON: Armed soldiers, armed policemen, they're using dogs and a lot of guns. It was such a risk but I said get rich or die trying.

LYNCH: You said get rich or die trying?

DAVIDSON: Yeah, it's tough. But since I had nowhere to go, I had no money, no work. I decided it was better to go to the diamond fields.

LYNCH: Davidson continues to go to the fields sneaking in under cover of darkness. So do hundreds, perhaps thousands of other young men. Davidson says there's a system now, an elicit one that's outlined in a recent report by Human Rights Watch. The gwejas find the diamonds, sell them on site to dealers, then share the proceeds with underpaid soldiers. But sometimes, the gwejas manage to smuggle out a few stones to sell for themselves. I've come here to a roadside plaza south of Mutare. It's known as an unofficial diamond marketplace. Music blares out from a store selling beer. There are about 30 young men weaving around the plaza; some are visibly drunk. They eye me warily, engage in tentative conversation, then one decides its time to find out if I'm a buyer.

MALE VOICE 1: Are you looking for stones?

LYNCH: Am I looking for stones? But everybody here has them don't they?

MALE VOICE 1: We have them, we have them. I have it.

LYNCH: You have them. How much do they cost?

MALE VOICE 1: A 50 carat would say, 150 carat what what?

LYNCH: Is that one?

MALE VOICE 1: Diamond. Yes.

LYNCH: That's a diamond. Oh I see. Are you keeping it in your mouth? Is that you have to keep it a secret?

MALE VOICE 1: A secret.

LYNCH: Yes, that's right. He slipped a diamond out from under his tongue and popped it into my palm. It was the size of a molar, the price, a few hundred dollars. If he had been caught taking it out of the diamond field he probably would have been beaten by the soldiers. Davidson says a friend of his was beaten a few weeks ago. Another was shot last fall. There are also persistent claims including a recent one issued by the British ambassador that government officials, police and the military are part of a different, more elaborate effort to smuggle top quality diamonds out of the country, lining their own pockets with the profits. In the capital Harare I have an appointment with the Minister of Mines to talk about the allegations of military and police corruption at Marange. As I arrive at the door, Zimbabwe's top police officer, Augustine Chihuri, emerges from the Minister's office. Chihuri, who is alleged to be demanding a cut of the diamond profits for him and his officers quickly leaves. And when I ask the Mine's Minister, Obert Mpofu if the government is complicit in taking diamonds out of the country, he denies it vehemently.

OBERT MPOFU: But how is that possible? To be honest with you, I personally have never seen a diamond from Marange.

LYNCH: You've never seen a diamond from Marange?

MPOFU: I've seen it through the microscope which we were shown when we visited the area, but I have not seen a raw diamond outside Marange or within Marange. So it is not possible.

LYNCH: As Mpofu says this, the large diamond ring he wears flashes in the sunlight. It's a gift from a diamond company in India he tells me. If the minister denies there's a problem with the diamond fields, there are others in government who frankly disagree. Finance Minister Tendai Biti is part of the opposition faction in the governing coalition. Biti sorely needs the profits from diamond sales to fill the country's empty coffers, but he says the new found treasure has brought only trouble.

TENDAI BITI: This is mineral that literally fell from the heavens like manna in Exodus. So it is frightening. We were taken by surprise. Yes, we accept that there have been human rights atrocities, there have been smuggling and there's still smuggling.

LYNCH: Throughout Africa, the discovery of diamonds has been a leading cause of conflict, violence and death. While the diamonds may not be fueling a war in Zimbabwe, there is evidence, past and present, that killings are carried out in the name of controlling the precious stones. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch, Harare.