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The sordid history behind Africa's conflict diamonds

'Blood Diamond' shows how industry leaders turned a blind eye to the atrocities funded by their policies.

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If "Blood Diamond" is not causing alarm among jewelers, as the World Diamond Council (WDC) insists, it should be. The new movie, which depicts atrocities fueled by illicit sales of African "conflict diamonds," could – and should – lead to public outrage.

Set in Sierra Leone, a small west African country rich in diamonds, it will leave an indelible impression of how leaders of the romance industry turned a blind eye to the way their policies funded some of the worst atrocities in modern warfare. In the 1990s, Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels mined diamonds from Sierra Leone at gunpoint, using forced labor and prisoners of war. They abducted children as young as 8 and used cocaine and heroin to engender in them loyalty and ruthlessness.

Using axes and machetes, the RUF chopped off the arms of some 20,000 civilians. Selling diamonds to willing buyers in neighboring Liberia and Guinea – and later, in London and Antwerp, Belgium – was the rebellion's only purpose.

WDC chairman Eli Izhakoff says the industry knew nothing of the conflict-diamond trade until 1999-2000, at which point titan De Beers stopped buying diamonds on the open market and industry leaders began exploring ways of ending the trade for good. But the ignorance excuse is preposterous. When the UN slapped sanctions on Sierra Leone's diamonds, the export of diamonds from neighboring countries quickly exceeded nature's limits. Even countries without any diamond mines at all, such as The Gambia, suddenly became important points of export to Belgium. Everyone knew where these diamonds came from.

The movie underlines this point to devastating effect. But as if facing conflict-diamonds' harsh reality weren't bad enough for the diamond industry, the film also needlessly exaggerates some points for effect. For example, it asserts a direct connection between a Sierra Leonean refugee and a highly placed diamond-industry villain working for the film's fictional version of De Beers. In truth, the stones were laundered through multiple countries and hands before they hit the cutting wheel, a circuitous chain of "don't ask, don't tell" transactions that gave the industry plausible deniability. Yes, the industry's leaders knew where some of their diamonds originated – and the death and suffering they had caused – but the film's blatant link implies more guilt than may be warranted.

How well the industry can counteract this impression remains to be seen. But without question, the story of Sierra Leone, and its destruction on behalf of the world's symbols of peace and love, is one that deserves the broad audience that Hollywood can deliver.

Greg Campbell is the author of "Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones." The book was used as a primary resource for the filmmakers, but he was not involved in production.


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