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Heaps of diamonds help fuel war in the Congo

Residents used to decorate mud huts with gems

SHARE Heaps of diamonds help fuel war in the Congo

MBUJI-MAYI, Congo — Flight 530 into Mbuji-Mayi comes so loaded with sacks of Congolese currency to buy diamonds that the passengers sometimes have to fly with their luggage on their laps.

Local dealers heap uncut gems for sale in the open-air markets of this fiercely defended southern city, the chief diamond center and money-maker left to Congo's government after 2 1/2 years of war.

At muddy markets like the Petit Marche, one key reason why the six-nation war drags on is glittering right under your nose.

Fortunes in unpolished diamonds gleam in stall after stall, among the beans, the bananas and the peanuts.

"If there is cash, if there are buyers, then we have no problems. As long as the war does not come here," dealer Jeannot Mujanayi says at one of the diamond shops lining the Petit Marche, smiling down into a wadded tissue of cloudy, clear and yellow stones.

At the Kabuebue pit outside Mbuji-Mayi, school-age miners search for more.

"I've been in diamonds all my life," 10-year-old diamond miner Tshibuibua Mukengeshayi boasts over the hum of a water pump.

He thrusts his skinny bare chest out over his torn shorts.

"It's a good living," he declares.

A rare visit to Mbuji-Mayi, all but closed to outsiders throughout the war, provided a look at a dirt-street city with the frontier feel of a permanent boomtown — and at one of the conflict's top targets.

Mbuji-Mayi became the focus of fighting in the south after Rwanda, Uganda and their rebel allies captured a lesser diamond city, Kisangani.

Rebels and the foreign armies rapidly seized the north and east of the country. Late Congo President Laurent Kabila summoned the military aid of Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia to save what he had left.

Kabila drew on Congo's mineral wealth to finance the war and secure his own allies' loyalty.

Kabila depended upon the diamond mines of Mbuji-Mayi above all — getting a minimum of $100 million a year from the city's riches at the height of the fighting.

A 1999 peace accord under which a U.N.-monitored cease-fire is now taking hold was hammered out during a Rwandan and rebel push toward Mbuji-Mayi.

If the Rwandans and rebels had reached it, they could have set their own terms for peace. Instead, thousands of Zimbabwean soldiers rushed to the front, stopping the advance.

Zimbabwe troops remain in force in Mbuji-Mayi, making little pretense of ceding its defense to Congo's ineffectual, ill-disciplined army.

At the airport, Zimbabwean army tents line the airstrips. Zimbabwean armored personnel carriers park on the lawn outside the arrival center.

Nearby, townspeople say, a diamond village has been turned over to the Zimbabweans to reward them for joining the fight.

In 2000, the pits around Mbuji-Mayi yielded one of the biggest diamonds found in years in Congo — a 269-carat, clear-white beauty. People knew of it even in the streets of faraway Kinshasa — "The Big Diamond."

Laurent Kabila's government seized it from its owner, then gave it back. The man ultimately was required to sell it to a government-approved Israeli company — $6 million, for what he unsmilingly says was a $10 million stone.

Mbuji-Mayi itself, like all of Congo, has seen little profit from its natural wealth.

Like almost every Congo city outside the capital, Mbuji-Mayi has no electricity, no running water. No government since independence in 1960 has bothered to build decent roads.

One street in town has worn into a rut so deep that pedestrians have carved steps in the dirt to make it easier to climb out.

Mbuji-Mayi's people often mimic how easy it used to be to find diamonds. They lean over, and pluck an imaginary gem from the road.

Pickings were especially good after a rain, they say.

Diamonds once were so common — and their value so little known — that townspeople planted unpolished stones in the mud walls of their thatched huts for decoration.

Passing Belgian merchants would buy the gems out of the walls in exchange for soap or salt.

"At that time, people could just come and pick diamonds up from a mine," says Joseph Mbaya, a former diamond-mine investor. "Now, to get diamonds, they have to work at it."

Even here, decades of government greed and mismanagement have blighted what should be prosperity. Homes are still of mud and people still decorate the walls — but today they use bottle caps.

Kabila ordered foreign diamond merchants out of Mbuji-Mayi in the late 1990s, saying he wanted the business for the Congolese. The war helped keep foreign buyers away.

Joseph Kabila, who became president after his father was assassinated in January, has promised to open up the diamond trade again, and Belgian and French buyers appear to be edging quietly back.

But prices still are down here — which explains why so many of the diggers at the Kabuebue pit are children.

When business was better, grown men crowded the pits, often using their fists to settle rival claims to patches of mud.

These days, boys as young as 8 dig to feed their families.

They pay lip service at least to wanting to go back to school. But dreams of another "Big Diamond" make it tough to keep the boys of Mbuji-Mayi in the classrooms.

"Maybe after I find a really big stone," says 10-year-old Tshibuibua.