HomeLocal NewsHow Marange diamonds looting started

How Marange diamonds looting started

THIS week the Zimbabwe Independent — which last week started publishing fresh stories based on its recent investigation into the Marange alluvial diamonds discovery and looting — carries a flashback on how the initially chaotic plundering of the diamondiferous Chiadzwa fields actually started after global diamond giant De Beers moved out of site where it was also accused of siphoning gems under the guise of exploration and tests, a claim it denies.

Obey Manayiti/Elias Mambo

The flooding of Chiadzwa by diamond hunters not only accelerated plunder, but also brought serious environment damage.
The flooding of Chiadzwa by diamond hunters not only accelerated plunder, but also brought serious environment damage.

HUNDREDS of menacing police officers, armed to the teeth with shotguns and brandishing rifles, lay in ambush at the foot of one of the mountains adjacent to a mining area in Marange where illegal miners hid after dodging details on patrol to gain adventurous access to the Chiadzwa diamond fields.

Everything seemed normal during the early hours that Saturday in 2008 as thousands of panners sang and shouted obscenities to intimidate law enforcers on patrol.

The battle lines over the Marange diamonds had been drawn; a war which was to be fought on many fronts in the years to come had broken out. The Independent’s reporter Manayiti witnessed the start of the operation.

Unbeknown to the panners, anti-riot police details from the Police Support Unit had arrived in large numbers. They had sealed the mountain and were just waiting for the order to start a massive operation to clear thousands of illegal miners from Marange.

As the order to start the operation came — a precursor to Operation Hakudzokwi (Operation No Return) — under which grisly human rights abuses and killings were to be committed by security forces, the officers ruthlessly and systematically fired gun shots as miners clambered the mountain.

As usual, the panners continued shouting “ridza titambe (fire so that we can dance) thinking it was one of the routine raids which would be easily resisted before illegal mining and looting of diamonds resumed.

The miners shouted their slogans “gweja mira, gweja hoo (illegal panner, don’t run, illegal panner stop!)”, but that did not stop the police from advancing and threatening to shoot.

“Lie down, or I shoot!” one police officer shouted, while firing his shotgun as a warning sign.

Some of the panners realised police meant business, and surrendered shortly after the scramble, chaos and skirmishes had begun. Some tried to flee, but only a few managed to escape the closing police net. Panners did not realise they were surrounded.

Many were injured in the operation, while some sustained bruises. But those who didnot suffer serious injuries were ordered to carry their counterparts to a diamond base where trucks were waiting to take the panners to Mutare for prosecution.

This was one of the methods used by police to drive away panners who had joined the diamond rush that had started as a rumour in 2006 after De Beers had left and the London-listed African Consolidated Resources (ACR) had moved in.

It all started as a rumour. Some villagers in Marange, struggling to make ends meet under conditions of runaway inflation and a collapsing economy, followed up leads from former De Beers workers to start checking around for diamonds.

At the time, villagers did not know the value of the diamonds as they had never traded in them. They, however, collected the precious stones and kept them in their homes.

“At the beginning, only a few people who worked for De Beers were aware that the company was taking away diamonds. So the process of siphoning diamonds started way back,” one of the Marange villagers, Malvern Mudiwa, told the Independent.

“The company was mining at Ushunje Mountain where Mbada Diamonds was later given a concession and taking the ore to Bezel Bridge for sorting. This only came to light after the company had left.

“People went on to spread the word that there were diamonds in Marange, but many did not believe it or take it seriously at the beginning because they thought it was lies. But there were some who confirmed seeing shiny stones which they used to shoot birds with their catapults. Many people grew up herding cattle and saw those stones, but didn’t know they were diamonds.”

Obert Mpofu, Zimbabwe’s former mines minister, made acrimonious accusations against De Beers a few years ago, saying the firm “looted tonnes” of diamonds from Marange over a period of 15 years.

“De Beers looted our diamonds for 15 years and were sending them to South Africa without our knowledge and they had even declared that area a restricted area, as if it was their land when the country belongs to us,” Mpofu said.
“Everyone knows that the diamonds at Chiadzwa are mined from the surface and De Beers was for the last 15 years alleging that they were doing prospecting and carrying out tests when in actual fact they were looting diamonds from Chiadzwa.”

However, De Beers has denied this, saying: “As we have said repeatedly before, these allegations are totally untrue. The presence of diamonds in the Marange area was first discovered in the period 2001 to 2003 by De Beers during its exploration search for primary deposits (kimberlites)”.

Mudiwa, who along with others later formed Marange Development Trust, said villagers sold the diamond pieces for a song during the early days — which immensely benefitted buyers instead of the country.

“Indeed, people went on to dig up the diamonds which were very close to the surface and they would exchange a whole cup full of diamonds for bread or other cheap food items,” Mudiwa said.

Villagers said they went for months exchanging the diamonds for small items until some buyers came into the area, increasing competition and prices as the law of demand and supply kicked in. They started bartering the diamonds for jeans, t-shirts, solar panels, radio and TV sets and DVD players, among other things.

“I remember it was around August or September of 2006 when we started seeing new faces coming to Marange,” Dadirai Mukwada, a villager, said.

“Before that we were only locals and we could identify each other. We would exchange diamonds for bread for breakfast. The Zimbabwean dollar was fast losing value and in short supply, so this cushioned us for some time.”

Headman Chiadzwa said his subjects were not really concerned about diamonds until buyers with loads of money invaded the area, fueling the looting process.

“Before the discovery of diamonds many people in my area survived on hunting and fishing,” headman Chiadzwa said.
“Even children would go to school with bows and arrows, not to attack each other but to hunt after school. That was the culture. Others weaved mats using barks from baobab trees to sell to people along the road or to those going to South Africa.

“However, things later changed after the discovery of diamonds. At first very few people knew about the diamonds and their worth until that time when there was a diamond rush which brought people from all over the country, and later the region.

“That was a stage at which many people from this area benefitted as there was huge flow of money. Some went to mine, others turned into buyers while others cooked food for sale. People from other countries came in as well as buyers.”

Within a few weeks Chiadzwa was turned into a chaotic sea of people and hive of activity. Villagers in Chiadzwa started building modern houses to replace huts, bought cars and furniture as they capitalised on the thriving diamond trade.

Most of the panning was done using sharp iron bars, picks and shovels.

People from other districts in Manicaland province got wind of what was happening and rushed to the area.

One George Mhlanga from Chipinge said he heard about the diamonds at a time when there was a frenetic gold rush in Kurwaisimba and Taka forestry plantation near Rusitu in Chimanimani and Musanditeera mountain near Mozambique in early 2007.

“I heard about the diamonds when my friends and I had gone to Chipinge town for a musical show after we had sold about 15 grammes of gold from Musanditeera,” Mhlanga said. “That was a lot of money, but at the show some people seemed to be spending much more than we were doing. They were talking about diamonds.”

Mhlanga said during that time a lot of people switched from gold to diamonds.

Word on the biggest diamond discovery since Cecil John Rhodes and attendant manna spread very fast. In no time people were flooding Chiadzwa and buyers were pouring in.

“By May 2006 there were around 100 panners in the Diamond fields, but by the end of the year the number was approximately 15 000. With the coming in of several foreign dealers a thriving market for diamonds developed. By 2008 over 35 000 people were now digging for diamonds in Marange,” Centre for Natural Resources Governance director Farai Maguwure said.

Headman Chiadzwa, however, said it did not take time before Chiadzwa was turned into a war zone.

“That culture of hunting vanished and people became more interested in diamonds. It is also important to note that people committed serious crimes during this time as they sought to maximise on the diamonds.”

The flooding of Chiadzwa by diamond hunters not only accelerated plunder, but also brought environment damage, health hazards, heavy drinking, crime, prostitution and disruption of normal social life, as well as activities such as schooling and church services.

The law of the jungle prevailed. There were some unruly panners who were identified as Magorimbo who wreaked havoc in the area. These were armed robbers who were raiding people and in some cases killing for diamonds or money.

Despite the police presence many people continued having access to the fields to loot as they would bribe security personnel to gain entry into the diamonds fields. Some buyers were also bribing the police on behalf of the syndicates, according to villagers.

“The government launched police crackdowns against illegal miners and smugglers several times since December 2006,” Canadile mining boss Lovemore Kurotwi says in his recent book, The Rise and Fall of Chiadzwa.

“In response to a call by the World Diamond Council for clampdown on smuggling, in November 2008 the Air Force of Zimbabwe was sent in to restore order in Chiadzwa after some police officers began refusing to take orders to shoot to kill the illegal miners.

“The military operation, known as Operation No Return or Hakudzokwi involved searching travellers in and out of Mutare West, with people found in possession of diamonds or foreign currency being detained and forced to fill in holes dug on the diamond fields to prevent environmental degradation.”

Human rights groups say over 200 people were killed at the diamonds fields, while thousands were maimed, tortured and brutalised in Marange.

One of the people who accidentally got caught up in the diamonds conflict was local sports journalist Simba Rushwaya, who is now based in South Africa. Rushwaya says he was almost killed — for nothing — by soldiers during the crackdown.

“Basically, I was arrested in November 2008 at my home area in Birchenough Bridge, about 372 kilometres south east of Harare under the operation code-named “Hakudzokwi” (No Return), literally meaning no one should go back to Chiadzwa diamond fields,” Rushwaya says.

“I had visited my home area from Harare to check on my then sick mother.

“Unfortunately for me, my visit coincided with the brutal operation in which we were severely beaten indiscriminately. I was picked at home alongside with three of my brothers. The security agents claimed they had gathered information that my family was buying of the gems, which was false.

“After being picked at home while brushing my teeth in the morning we were force marched into state-owned buses and army trucks. As we were headed into the buses and trucks we were beaten with sticks and clenched fists at gunpoint.”

Rushwaya continues.

“The trucks and buses then headed for Chiadzwa. Along the way the beatings intensified. It was very painful because I did not take part in diamond mining and dealing. Upon arrival at the diamond fields, we were told to sit down in a single file in holdings cells and asked to ‘bath’ with soil that was all over the place. We ‘bathed’ but little did I know worse was still to come.

“I had never been subjected to such a brutal assault in my life, all for nothing. Aggressive and angry army officers and security details formed two lines on each side of the path that would lead into our holding cell.
Armed with logs, the army details asked us one by one to crawl under the columns which was formed over 300 metres to the holding camp while they beat us without mercy.”

Rushwaya says he could not withstand the attacks and he eventually collapsed.

“I fainted from the severe beatings and many more did including those who confessed they were taking HIV treatment.
I endured the worst attack after the details discovered a press card in my wallet during their searches. They accused me of coming to Chiadzwa to report what was going on and said I was the enemy of the state.

“At that stage they classified me as one of the worst criminals in the group.

“Seven soldiers were assigned to beat me up. It was the worst nightmare of life. Two soldiers grabbed my legs while the other pair concentrated on my arms. While dangling in the air, three of the seven soldiers hit me with logs and anything they could find around. The other one concentrated on my back, the second on my buttocks with the third on my thighs as they shouted ‘journalist’.”

To be continued …

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