Sometimes I wonder if God will ever forgive us for what we’ve done to each other…Then I look around and I realize… God left this place a long time ago.
Character, Danny Archer in the movie Blood Diamond
Love can throw a mean curveball. About 10 years ago, I found myself taking a swing at one such curveball. I desperately wanted to prove my love and get my beautiful soon-to-be fiancé what I thought she wanted – a diamond ring. However, I must have been paying at least a little attention to world news because at that time, the news I heard coming from West Africa made what should have been a fun and exciting quest for the perfect ring feel more like I was half-heartedly swinging at a wild pitch only to be struck out.
While the news reports talked of civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia being funded through the trafficking of raw diamonds, I remember roaming the streets of Las Cruces, New Mexico searching the jewelry stores and rummaging though the phone book calling local and not-so local jewelry stores. Long before I finished contacting every single jeweler in the area it was obvious that jewelers didn’t have a clue whether or not their wares had been involved in funding and inadvertently supporting the horrors I was hearing about on the news. My plea, “I just to want to make sure the diamond didn’t come from a conflict zone” was overwhelmingly met with a blank and confused stare. Only one jeweler seemed a bit sympathetic to my quest.
There are few if any diamonds mined in Uganda that I’m aware of (although it appears many are smuggled from the Congo via Uganda) but I will never forget the deformed face of the man I saw 15 years ago who’s ears were sliced off by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. His face and what I can only imagine his terror would have been like during such a violent act has stayed with me all these years. It was his Ugandan face I saw in my mind when I would later hear the news coming from Sierra Leone a few years later when they talked about the rampant killing, gang rapes and cutting off innocent people’s hands, arms and sometimes legs. It was this Ugandan face that became my personal poster child for what was wrong with me buying a diamond without knowing where it came from.
I regret that in spite of the values I thought I would uphold, my search for a “conflict free” diamond ended with me buying a ring with multiple diamonds. I bought it from the jeweler who seemed sympathetic and I suppose her sympathy lessened my guilt just enough for me to lay down my credit card. I am guilty of buying diamonds with unknown origin while the sale and trade of diamonds were enabling so much horror in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Like Liberia’s then president, Charles Taylor, I’m also guilty of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.
Last month’s verdict by the Special Court for Sierra Leone judges in The Hague pronouncing Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting was perhaps a bit anti-climatic. Leading up to the verdict, when I could get the static-filled BBC radio broadcasts in my house, they’d be recounting Taylor’s history and his alleged role in the atrocities. People here in Liberia were generally eager to share their opinion when I asked them what they thought about the trial of their former president. Some said they’d be happy to see him sit in jail for the rest of his life for what he had done. Many others said they’d be happy to see him run for president again if they didn’t convict him. On the day of the verdict, the baby blue UN helmets were back on the street in my town shading the faces and the rifles of the Nigerian and Pakistani soldiers. We hadn’t seen the blue helmets in town since the elections last fall. I hunkered down and stayed close to home. Perhaps we were all holding our breath.
Then they announced Taylor’s guilt. Nothing happened. School went on like it does. After school, I saw my students selling cassava and nail polish from the wheelbarrows they pushed around town. Between announcing Taylor’s guilty verdict, the local radio station still played Nigerian pop music mixed with songs by Don Williams and Kenny Rogers. The dust still settled over my table and bedding. Perhaps we were all exhaling.
Journalist Douglas Farah, in his book Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network Of Terror, documented bin Laden’s interest in West African diamonds and al Qaeda links to Taylor as far back as 1998. That same year, televangelist Pat Robertson, wanting to diversity his investments in Congolese diamond mines, worked with Taylor and invested (and ultimately lost) $8.5 million dollars into a Liberian gold mine. Jesse Jackson also spoke highly of Taylor back then with the aim of countering Taylor’s “abysmal human rights record”. With fear of being assumptive or naive I’d like to think that both Robertson and Jackson, at least back in the late 1990’s, honestly believed Taylor was on the straight and narrow and didn’t know he was just the next flavor of despot orchestrating the hell we now know he was unleashing in the name of greed. I hope they had good intentions although that’s little consolation to the 500,000 people who died in Sierra Leone and the 250,000 people who died in Liberia and the millions more disfigured, displaced and forever traumatized because of Taylor – and, perhaps in part because of Robertson’s poorly invested $8.5 million dollars, and perhaps in part because of Jesse Jackson’s misinformed lobbying, and perhaps in part because of my own decision to compromise my values.
Early this morning, they sentenced Taylor to 50 years minus his 6 years already served. If this holds through whatever appeals may be coming, he’ll be in jail the rest of his life. Clearly his jail time doesn’t make up for the horror Taylor caused but somehow knowing he’ll spend the rest of his life in jail makes the air feel a little clearer here in Liberia – less dusty, less burdensome. Liberia is definitely breathing again. I’ll be celebrating and I think many Liberians will be joining me. I know they’re partying in Sierra Leone. Maybe even some of the LRA’s surviving victims in Uganda are enjoying just a little semblance of justice in the world. Here’s to a little semblance of justice and here’s to the good riddance of another despot – may he be one of the last.