Diamond fever strikes Zimbabwe

MUTARE, Zimbabwe — Ronald seems a respectable, church-on-Sunday type. Not the kind you would find prospecting for diamonds here in Zimbabwe's wild east, a world of swaggering foreigners, dirty money and shoot-to-kill police. Not the sort who would utter movie-script lines like this one: "You can make $15,000 or $20,000 in 30 minutes. But you can die within seconds."

Ronald, like the rest of Zimbabwe, has caught Africa’s nastiest ailment — diamond fever.

Sleepy towns such as Mutare have blinked awake to find their quiet streets buzzing with opportunists and black marketeers. Every day, illicit miners show up at the hospital with gaping bullet wounds and flimsy excuses for how they got them. Characters straight out of "Blood Diamond" cruise like sharks.

But the biggest sharks are nowhere to be seen: Officials of President Robert Mugabe’s regime are looting the diamonds, industry sources and members of Zimbabwe’s security services say.

Not only are they personally enriching themselves with one of the few natural resources left in this ruined country, party fat cats might be finding life support in the diamond riches, Western diplomats and analysts fear, and gaining one more motive to cling to power.

Industry and security sources say government leaders have their own syndicates to dig and trade diamonds on the black market.

"The diamond game is the filthiest game in town, and everyone’s into it," says one source familiar with the gem industry. "It’s not even semi-organized chaos. It’s a bunch of thieves who backstab each other.

"A lot of leaders of the political regime are involved in trading. They have their own diggers and traders. But it’s all to their personal account. They’ve all got a vested interest in chaos."

Diplomats, industry sources and some nongovernmental agencies believe that the Marange field here could be one of the most significant diamond discoveries in decades.

Mugabe’s regime is certainly behaving as if it is. In mid-November, the government sent in the military to crack down on unsanctioned miners. Soldiers even fired on miners from helicopters, local sources say. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change says nearly 140 people have been killed.

A prison official in Mutare said top figures in the ruling ZANU-PF party and security officials are running the illegal diamond trade here.

In a country where the paralyzed economy offers few opportunities, diamonds are almost irresistible. Ronald, 31, who had given up working for an insurance company for black-market currency dealing, was drawn into illegal mining. He gave only his first name, fearing going to jail. 

Ronald says he saw five unsanctioned miners, including two women, shot to death by police on the diamond field in late November as they fled carrying large sacks of soil. One of those killed was a policeman mining illegally.

"It’s like war," Ronald says.

Opinions differ on the significance of the Marange field. Some put its worth in billions of dollars annually; others estimate it at under $50 million.

But a Belgian-based diamond expert scoffed at the figure and said 90 percent of the gems were low-quality industrial diamonds.

Local industry figures say that in the past 12 months, high-quality diamonds have increasingly been turning up. The Reserve Bank chief, Gideon Gono, said last month that more than 500 syndicates were operating in Marange and estimated that the government was losing $1.2 billion in diamond revenue every month.

The fenced area in Marange operated by the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corp. is known locally as "Mai Mujuru’s Breast," a reference to the country’s corpulent vice president, Joyce Mujuru.

"It’s a ZANU-PF place," opposition lawmaker Pishai Muchauraya says. "No one is allowed to get in there. If you’re a special person, you will go there and you will be allowed just 20 minutes. That’s where you can get clear diamonds."

But Ronald, the illegal miner, says he paid a bribe to a policeman to spend several hours at Mai Mujuru’s Breast. He got only one tiny diamond, which he sold for $150.

Itai, 28, got into trading diamonds 18 months ago. He smuggles them in his mouth across the border to sell to Lebanese and Israeli dealers in Mozambique. He has bought two houses and five cars. Three months ago, he says, he and his aunt traded a clear 30-carat stone as big as his thumbnail for $30,000 in a hotel-room deal with an Israeli.

He says most of the illegal miners are well-educated: "They’re teachers, nurses, soldiers, policemen and civil servants."

The prison official said the real aim of the recent crackdown was to give the syndicates operated by top ruling party figures free rein.

Manicaland was one of the areas most severely hit by political violence after the elections in March, which saw ZANU-PF lose the Mutare council, the mayoral post and 20 parliamentary seats there to the Movement for Democratic Change.