Armed diamond miners fast developing into Warlords

MARANGE, (IRIN) – Armed informal diamond miners in Zimbabwe's eastern Manicaland Province, scraping a living in desperate times, are resisting attempts by police to remove them in increasingly violent clashes.

According to police spokesperson Andrew Phiri, as quoted by the state-owned The Herald newspaper, several police officers were killed about two weeks ago in a shoot-out with diamond miners, known as "makorokoza" in the local Shona language. Local residents claimed a miner was killed by the police last week.

The diamond fields in the Chiadzwa area of Marange District, some 90km southwest of Mutare, the biggest city in the province, have attracted thousands of informal miners in the past two years; Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), said diamond smuggling had cost the country around US$400 million in 2007.

John Sakarombe, 24, walks with a limp after being shot in the leg by police during a running battle about three months ago. "There is war at Chiadzwa. The police and soldiers who patrol the area warn us that they were given an explicit order to shoot once a situation turns violent," he said.

"True to their word, we buried one of our colleagues in Marange recently; another is battling for his life at home," he told an IRIN correspondent who visited the area recently.

"You see, one would rather die at home than under guard by the police in a hospital, because the moment you visit a hospital they want to know how you sustained your injuries before treating you, and that is when they call in the Babylons [local slang for police]."

Despite the possibility of violent death, the allure of overnight riches keeps Sakarombe and many others in Marange. More than 80 percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed in an economy marked by the highest inflation rate in the world – now officially at 231 million percent, but unofficially thought to be many times higher.

Much money

Informal miners sell their rough diamonds to middlemen who, in turn, smuggle them out of the country for sale at higher prices. Many of them, like Sakarombe, who trades in foreign currency, are not short of money. When not digging for diamonds at Chiadzwa, he lives in a hotel in Mutare, and this year alone imported two used cars from Durban in South Africa.

He can afford to buy food for his ageing mother in rural Chipinge, in Manicaland, ensuring that she does not starve at a time when about three million people are in need of food aid countrywide.

He can also afford private medical care. "The doctors can do anything if you have the foreign currency to pay them and, after all, the referral hospitals or clinics here are not well equipped in any case."

Armed and here to stay

James Dauramanzi, 35, a member of a syndicate comprising six informal diamond miners, used to live in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, about 400km from Marange. "I am here to stay and will have to fight it out with these military guys," he told IRIN. He smuggled a revolver out of South Africa when he came home after finding survival on the streets of Johannesburg "too tough".

"I spend most of the day in the shafts digging for the diamonds and sneak out during the night; that is when my colleagues and I have confrontations with the soldiers and the armed police on horseback. They are becoming more vicious every day because some of them get killed or are injured."

Dauramanzi confessed that he had been involved in several shootouts with the security personnel, "and I don’t care if some of those who have died are my victims, because they would not hesitate to kill me either."

He said the "less sophisticated" illegal miners carried machetes and spears that were "mostly handy when dealing with the dogs that the police set on us".

View from the other side

A police officer at a roadblock set up to search for diamonds, who did want to be identified, told IRIN: "The makorokoza are becoming more and more daring. If you don’t injure or kill them, they will get at you first. They are behaving like warlords, and I guess it’s because a lot of money is involved in this dangerous venture."

He said the informal miners had organised themselves into groups that ambushed and attacked security personnel on patrol using home made bombs, and the police had received reinforcements from the headquarters in Mutare after two officers had died in a clash. "There should not be too much restraint when dealing with the makorokoza, otherwise you will be carried home in a coffin," he commented.

However, Dauramanzi accused the patrolmen of stealing from them. "Being assigned to carry out duties here is actually a blessing in disguise for them, because it gives them the opportunity to make money. Sometimes they arrest and torture us to force us to surrender our loot to them," he said.

Syndicates of informal miners also often have internal confrontations. "The syndicates accuse each other of encroaching onto exclusive territory belonging to a certain group or of ‘stealing’ clients," Dauramanzi said.

"Fights that emerge out of this have also resulted in death, and often occur after heavy drinking bouts in the city or other places. I know of cases where rivals have buried each other alive in the [mine] tunnels."