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Event Wed Jan 20 2010

A Chicago Report on Zimbabwe's 'Blood Diamonds'

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Americans can help stop Zimbabwe's "blood diamond" abuses by writing to elected officials and pressing retailers on the source of their diamonds, argues Tiseke Kasambala, a senior researcher with the Human Rights Watch.

Kasambala, who has researched the trafficking of blood diamonds in Zimbabwe since 2004, spoke to a small crowd at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut St., on Tuesday evening as part of an event sponsored by the Chicago committee of the Human Rights Watch.

According to Kasambala's research for the organization, armed forces in Zimbabwe are torturing children and adults in the diamond mines of eastern Zimbabwe, specifically in the Marange district. The military -- under the leadership of President Robert Mugabe -- took control of these fields after killing more than 200 people in Chiadzwa and injuring thousands more in October 2008. In part, Mugabe's Zanu-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front) wanted control of the diamond trade in this area to fund its own activities around elections and to pay off militia they had hired, she says.

Kasambala describes the horrific massacre of October 2008 with vivid description and a solemn tone:

"They came in with gunships, with dogs, with guns armed to the hilt. They came into this area where there was at least 5,000 people. Soldiers on the ground started firing at the population. People started running; dogs were set loose. At the end of that, 200 prospectors lay dead with thousands more injured. The army then decided to try and cover up this massacre. ..We have evidence of at least two mass graves which we went to see. One where we know there are at least 70 prospectors who are buried there. Another one around the area where another 70 were buried. We don't know where the rest are buried. We spoke to medical personnel and attendants who saw the bodies and who participated in the burial of these people. We also spoke to some of the other victims and witnesses to that massacre of that day. But it didn't end with that massacre. The army proceeded to secure the mines...so basically they sent buses out into neighboring towns, captured 50 to 60 people, and forced them onto the buses and took them into the diamond fields, beat them up and forced them to look for the diamonds. They weren't just forcing adults, they also forced young children."

The abuses, which Kasambala says continue as she speaks, didn't end there: children are still forced into labor; women are often raped and forced to strip; and soldiers brutally beat workers, often at gunpoint throughout the night, accusing them of stealing diamonds. "Many do not know anything about these diamonds," Kasambala says.

The Human Rights Watch published a report in June 2009 about these abuses. Read the full report here.

Kasambala told the crowd that much of the country's problems stem from Zimbabwe's corrupt government and the corrupt Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which controls much of the blood diamond trade. After years of oppressive ruling, the country's economy "collapsed drastically" in 2008, inflation skyrocketed and schools began shutting down.

"Ninety-four percent of people were now unemployed; schools had shut down; three-quarters of teachers, because of low pay, had fled; the three main hospitals had shut down, there was no medication, no medicine for the sick," Kasambala recalls. "Many doctors and nurses also fled the country. One million Zimbabweans went across the border to South Africa. At least another three million,which was one-third of the country, went to places far off such as Australia and the United Kingdom. So within the span of ten years, Mugabe basically destroyed his own country while at the same time brutally suppressing his own people."

Kasambala and members of the Human Rights Watch recommend that concerned Americans follow three steps to help eliminate these labor abuses. She warns that the American market is at risk of being flooded with these diamonds, but these actions can help:

  • Write to your Senator or Representative to urge them to "remedy the Kimberley Process's failings and expose the actions of Mugabe's allies. At the same time, urge a swift review of, and amendment to, the Clean Diamond Trade Act." The Kimberley Process is a certification scheme created to regulate the trade of conflict or "blood" diamonds, but Kasambala and others argue that the process has been ineffective because it has failed to suspend diamond trade in Zimbabwe despite documented abuses.

  • Write to other Kimberley Process "states," including China, Russia and Switzerland, and tell them that "they need to act to end the smuggling of blood diamonds and stop the human rights abuses at the Marange diamond fields." See a sample letter here.

  • Finally, if you are considering purchasing a diamond, ask the retailer about the source of the diamond and request that the seller show proof that the diamond is not from Zimbabwe. If no proof is offered, do not purchase the diamond.

Kasambala says contrary to what some people may think, the regulated and lawful trade of diamonds actually supports some independent diamond miners in other African countries, specifically those in Botswana.

The Chicago committee of the Human Rights Watch plans to hold several other events in the coming months, including forums on human trafficking, women's rights and military trials, especially in relation to news about the Thomson Correctional Center. Jobi Petersen Cates, director for the Chicago and Midwest region committees, encourages anyone interested in basic human rights to attend future events. "Our strength is you," she says.

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GK / February 25, 2010 1:15 PM

Human Rights Watch has done an incredible service by documenting evidence of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe’s mining fields.
– Greg, www.brilliantearth.com

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