Blood Diamonds: A Viewer’s Guide


In response to the criticism this film has taken (some of it certainly founded), I thought I would provide a reader’s guide of sorts to expose some of the lesser disscussed facts behind the film in order to help the viewer get more out of the film and understand some of the things the film was trying to subtly convey. The reality is that the film should not be seen only as an expose of the illicit diamond trade, but also as a film that takes a small glimpse into the Private Military Contractor businesses that were set up after the Cold War, and also as a harrowing look into the lives of African child soldiers.

First and foremost, Sierra Leone’s war was never a civil war. It began when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a guerilla group formed in Liberia, invaded southern Sierra Leone along with fighters from Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Burkina Faso mercenaries. It was falsely called a civil war by many people because the Sierra Leonian government thought that was what it was at first. The rebels invaded directly into Mende territory (Kailahun District) and the Timni, who held numerous high-government and administrative positions at the time, mistakenly thought it was inter-fighting between Mende while others thought it was a small-scale uprising against the government. In fact, relations between the Mende (predominantly in the south) and Timnis (predominantly in the north) have been relatively peaceful since post-colonial times. Historically in Sierra Leone, such inter-ethnic fighting quickly fizzled out and therefore by the time the RUF captured the diamond mining areas in the southeast and people realized they were being invaded, it was too late to mount a quick response.

The RUF’s commanders were all products of Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s World Revolutionary Headquarters (WRH) in Tripoli, Libya. A number of their trainees quickly took over several West African states. Blaise Compaore seized power in Burkina Faso and he assassinated his former friend President Thomas Sankara. He still remains in charge of the country today. President Compaore then helped another Qaddafi student named Charles Taylor seize power in Liberia. Taylor’s son Chuckie Taylor, currently being held in the U.S. on international charges of torture and murder, holds U.S. citizenship.

After recieving an economics degree at Bentley College (Waltham, Massacussetts) and forming student protests against President Tolbert, Charles Taylor was arrested for reportedly embezzling Liberian state funds and imprisoned in Plymouth, Massachussets in 1984. The arrest was carried out at the request of Liberian President Samuel Doe, who was friendly with the Reagan Administration at the time. After serving 15 months, Charles Taylor somehow managed to escape from prison. While the four others who escaped with him were apprehended, he somehow found his way back to Africa and enrolled in Gaddafi’s school. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_G._Taylor; http://www.liberiapastandpresent.org/charles_taylor.htm).

Foday Sankoh (aka Papa or Pap), the RUF’s commander and former photographer, also trained at the WRH. About 50 Sierra Leonians, mostly revolutionary-minded students influenced by Gaddafi’s Green Book, travelled with him to Libya after the Sierra Leonian Government began brutal crackdowns on university demonstrations demanding government reform. After completing their military training and revolutionary indoctrination, they staged in Liberia to launch a war in Sierra Leone. In order to consolidate power and eliminate the possiblity of splinter factions, the educated people among the ranks were systematically executed by Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh. The RUF’s ranks were bolstered with disillusioned and illiterate people from Sierra Leone and Liberia, primarily artisian miners recruited from the Kono and Kailahun districts. (Private Interview. April 2006.) Only 3 of the original 50 who left for Libya crossed into Sierra Leone with the RUF. (“Sierra Leone: The Forgotten Crisis.” Report to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Honourable Lloyd Axworth, P.C., M.P. from David Pratt M.P., Nepean-Carleton, Special Envoy to Sierra Leone. 23 April, 1999.)

One of the important points in the film very few people have mentioned is the ficticious mercenary company Danny Archer’s character works for in the film. The charachters in the film are based on soldiers from the company Executive Outcomes, a now defunct firm. As the film portrayed, the firm was made up of soldiers who faught in several past wars. Some of them were Rhodesians who fled to South Africa after North and South Rhodesia (named after Cecil Rhodes) were granted independence as Zambia and Zimbabwe. Many of these soldiers faught against the African National Congress (ANC) in apartheid South Africa. As stated in the film, many of them fought in Angola to drive out the Russians and Cubans. Some of them connected with some black South African soldiers to form the 32nd Buffalo Battalion, South Africa’s counter-terrorist team. When Executive Outcomes formed in 1989, some of the top executives (including founder Eeben Barlow) and contracted soldiers were former members of the 32 Battalion and the Civil Cooperations Bureau, a death squad that was reportedly tasked with assassinating anti-apartheid opponents. (Madsen, Wayne. “Genocide and Covert Activites in Africa 1993-1999.” Lampeter, Ceredigion, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press. 1999. pg. 171.) They were first hired to protect Chevron and Sonangol’s oil facilities in Angola from Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels.

In 1995, then de facto Sierra Leonian President Valentine Strasser hired Executive Outcomes to drive the RUF away from Freetown. Tony Buckingham, an owner of Executive Outcomes, also owned Branch Mining, which was promised diamond mining concessions in the Kono District in exchange for their services. Veterans of the 32 Battalion who faught in Angola and Namibia were brought in along with highly decorated pilots Arthur Walker and Carl Albers. (Madsen, Wayne. “Genocide and Covert Activites in Africa 1993-1999.” Lampeter, Ceredigion, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press. 1999. pg. 379.) They sucessfully beat back the RUF by spring 1996. As depicted in the film, they used Russian-made Hind-24 helicopters to launch devastating attacks on the rebels.

Meanwhile, retired South African Defense Force intelligence officer Fred Rindle (who faught in Angola) was seen with several former South African soldiers training the RUF. After 1998, the RUF were clearly better organized and regularly engaged in counter-insurgency tactics. In the meantime, Rindle was involved in the illicit diamond trade with UNITA and Charles Taylor. (“Diamond Hunters Fuel Africa’s Brutal Wars,” James Rupert. Washington Post. 16 October, 1999. pg. A1.) This fueled allegations that Executive Outcomes worked both sides during the war, an allegation alluded to in the film when one of the mercenaries mentioned they armed the RUF so they could legitimately be a threat to take Freetown. This would allow their company to appear as a savior to the government when they made their business proposal to aid the Sierra Leonian Government Forces, without them knowing they had created the situation in the first place.

Sierra Leone held elections and Ahmed Tehan Kabbah, a former U.N. Development Project official, was elected. He terminated Executive Outcomes contract. An Executive Outcomes subsidiary named Lifeguard stayed behind to guard Branch Energy’s diamond concessions and U.N. facilities in Freetown. Later, “Toxic” Bob Friedland and his brother Eric’s Canada-based Diamond Works company (previously known as Carson Gold) bought out Branch Energy. The situation was complicated when President Kabbah was overthrown by Johnny Paul Koroma’s (a graduate of Sandhurst Military Academy) Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a group of soldiers who defected from the Sierra Leonian Army (SLA) and hundreds of criminals who were broken out of a Freetown jail (A similar event was shown in the film). President Kabbah fled in exile to Conakry, Guinea. The AFRC quickly sided with the RUF. In response, the international community invoked an arms embargo on Sierra Leone.

British officials (particularly High Commissioner Peter Penfold) and Kabbah plotted to take back the country. Since the contract with Executive Outcomes had ended, they signed with Sandline International, run by ex-Scots Guard officer Lt. Col. Timothy Spicer, a close friend of Tony Buckingham and some of the Executive Outcomes brass. While Koromah was in power, most of the mining firms could not function so the Sandline deal was financed by an Indian national named Rakesh Saxena, who owned the Jupiter Mining Corporation that had interests in Sierra Leone.

The plan appeared to be set in motion by former MI-6 agent Rupert Bowen, a Branch Energy offical. With the blessing of the U.S. State Department, arms were shipped to Nigeria en route to rearming Kabbah loyalists in the SLA. However, the Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers impounded the weapons in Freetown. The counter-coup was eventually successful in March 1998, but Kabbah’s government now answered to Nigerian General Sani Abacha, though others were adamant the Nigerian were supposed to be in charge. (Madsen, Wayne. “Genocide and Covert Activites in Africa 1993-1999.” Lampeter, Ceredigion, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press. 1999. pg. 386-392; also see Spicer OBE, Lieutenant Colonel Tim. “An Unorthodox Soldier: Peace and War and the Sandline Affair.” Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Mainstream Publishing Company. 2003; for Sandline’s side of the story.) The resulting scandal over whether it constituted an arms embargo violation led, in part, to Sandline’s closure in April 2004.

The diamond company depicted in the film is intended to be a facsimile of DeBeers, but for legal reasons, the film does not mention the company by name. It is true that Antwerp is the hub of the blood diamond trade and the film, albet briefly, showed the Lebanese and Israeli middlemen selling the stones in Antwerp, where they were transferred for cutting in India and elsewhere before being sold on the commercial market. The depictions of how border smuggling was achieved were relatively accurate though perhaps simplistic. The mercenaries did not travel across the Liberian border on foot. Often this type of smuggling was done by “mules.” When the RUF raided villages, they often spared the healthy men to dig in the mines for them or act as couriers by carrying diamonds to the Liberian border for them, then carrying back the purchased weapons.

Customs officials in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Liberia were routinely paid to forge the origin certificates of blood diamonds, as shown in the movie. The viewer should realize that the certificate forgery can be act as a way around the Kimberly Process if the buyer does not ask questions. Moreover, even if they do ask questions, the diamonds change hands so often someone will invoke plausible deniability when giving the source of the stones. There is no foolproof way to guarantee diamonds are “conflict-free.”

One of the major players in the illicit diamond trade was Ibrahim Bah. Mr. Bah is a military officer from Burkina Faso. A devout Muslim, he faught with Hezbollah against the Israeli Defense Force and joined the Taliban in Afghanistan when they waged war to take power by fighting off the Northern Alliance led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, a Tajik. In Africa, he was part of the failed 1981 coup attempt in The Gambia. (“War and Peace in Sierra Leone: Diamonds, Corruption and the Lebanese Connection.” Lansana Gberie. Partnership Africa Canada. November 2002. pg. 15.) In addition to serving as Colonel Gaddafi’s bodyguard, Bah was in charge of training the West African forces for Gaddafi and he helped organize the NPFL. He and he faught alongside the NPFL and RUF. (Farah, Douglas. “Blood From Stones.” New York, New York: Broadway Books. 2004. pg. 24-25.)

As a general in the RUF, Bah set up their diamond smuggling routes and logistics. He organized a safehouse in Monrovia with Samih Ossailly and Ali Darwish for RUF clients to conduct their illicit business transactions. General Bah was most notorious for introducing several members of Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah to RUF commander Samuel Bokarie (a.k.a. General Mosquito) so they could purchase blood diamonds (aka confict diamonds) from the RUF. Among the Al-Qaeda members were Egyptian Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, Tanzanian Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, and Kenyan/Comoros Islands dual citizen Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who was in charge of Al-Qaeda’s diamond purchasing operations in Africa. They moved into the safehouse on 6 March, 2001. All three are wanted internationally for the bombing of the American Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya in 1998. (Campbell, Greg. “Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones.” Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press [Perseus Books Group]. 2002. pg. 186-189; “Bin Laden’s Dollars 20m African ‘Blood Diamond’ Deals,” The Observer. 20 October, 2001.)

The RUF also used the diamonds as currency in deals with infamous arms dealer Viktor Bout and his partner Sanjivan Ruprah (who ran Branch Energy’s subsidiary Branch Energy-Kenya ["Arms Trafficking Network," The Indian Ocean Newsletter. 13 December, 1997.). Mr. Bout was the template for Nicolas Cage's character in another recent Hollywood film entitled "Lord of War." Israeli businessman (and personal friend of Charles Taylor) Leonid Menin also facilitated arms deals through Burkina Faso with the blessing of President Comapore. (Campbell, Greg. "Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones." Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press [Perseus Books Group]. 2002. pg. 66.)

Despite what the popular press would have you believe, the illicit diamond trade continues today, though the prospects for its cessitation have improved with the recent signing of a peace accord in Cote d’ Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The New Forces rebels, despite repeated denials, are reportedly moving diamonds mined from northern Ivory Coast for income to fund their movement. Malian nationals were buying stones in the rebel- controlled town of Seguela, particularly the Bobi Dyke mine. (“Ivorian Diamond Trade Goes On Despite Ban-UN,” Reuters. 18 December, 2006) Ghana has also been accused of illegally certifying diamond from the Ivory Coast. (“Ghana Under the Gun Over Illicit Gem Trade,” Eric Onstad. Reuters. 7 November, 2006.) To complicate matters, some of the former Executive Outcomes mercenaries accepted jobs with French soldiers to aid the Ivorian army against the rebels. (“British Mercenaries Find a New Ferocity in Ivory Coast,” James Astill. The Guardian. 22 February, 2003.) Many former RUF and NPFL soldiers who refused to lay down arms are also fighting in the north. In Sierra Leone today, gold exports are projected to overshadow diamonds in the coming years and the blood diamond trade has virtually ended.

The depictions of what the child soldiers endured was accurate to a point, but opted not to show all the horrors they endured. The RUF really did inject them with drugs and take them by force from villages they raided. Children who did not follow orders were often murdered. Children were forced to kill people in order to “toughen them up.” The RUF really did give them comic book-like names in order to separate them from their sense of identity and train them to be mindless killing machines.

Several battles in the Sierra Leonian war were faught almost exclusively by children. The battle forFreetown on 25 May, 1997 (depicted in the film) that drove President Kabbah out of the country was led by brigades of RUF children dazed by drugs and homemade gin. It was part of Sam Bockarie’s aptly named “Operation No Living Thing.” They shot virtually anything that moved and looted countless buildings. As shown in the film, they donned pink wigs and went on looting and killing sprees. Several Nigerian ECOMOG soldiers were killed during the battle.

While the life expectancy still hovers around 40 years, government corruption is still rampant, and the upcoming elections offer little hope of government reform to Sierra Leonians, the people are not waiting for their government to get its act together. Small-scale community rebuilding projects have begun. Many people are rebuilding with whatever they have available to them. They will move forward with or without their government. They are making the best of their situation and their courage is indeed inspiring. One of my closest friends, a Mende, never focuses on the war when we talk about Sierra Leone, only the prospect for the future. Sierra Leonians still have strength and hope for their future.

With regards to the film, keep in mind that Hollywood juggles entertainment and education. After all, it is about profit for them. In recent times, we have seen Hollywood distort events (Blackhawk Down) and even spread outright nonsense (Hotel Rwanda) with regards to real events depicted in movies. There is certainly nothing entertaining about the Sierra Leone war. While the film made a concerted effort to show the plight of the child soldiers, a hallmark of the war, they refrained from the most graphic violence to prevent repulsing the viewer. I strongly urge the viewer to keep in mind the war was real, the people were real and they are not just pictures or images on a screen. They are people like you and me just trying to survive day-to-day whose lives were ruined by war.

Victims of the RUF.

While the film came out several years too late for Sierra Leone, there is still a valuble lession to be gleaned from it. Africa has a “blood minerals” trade that is very active and continues to consume innocent African lives in exchange for the comforts of living we currently experience. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a blood cassiterite and gold trade. Our consumer decisions and activism can still make a difference in these and other countries that fund warfare through the sale of smuggled minerals and natural resources. This is the hidden message of the film, a message anyone who considers themselves a humanitarian should heed.

David Barouski is a researcher and African Studies student at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Last year, he travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. He was a Project Censored award winner in 2007 and is the author of the book “Laurent Nkundabatware, his Rwandan Allies, and the ex-ANC Mutiny: Chronic Barriers to Lasting Peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” Though his writing career has been short, his articles have been carried in the Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings, Waheen Online, the Somaliland Times, Congo Panorama, La Conscience, and Business in Africa Magazine (International Edition). He can be reached at [email protected] or through his website at http://www.africannewsanalysis.blogspot.com.

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