(Rapaport…IRIN, MBUJI MAYI) Diamonds, the top export in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC,) are mostly extracted from the middle of the country at Kasai Oriental Province. Yet people there are among the poorest in the DRC and diamonds seem to be tearing apart their society. Children do much of the work and many are killed in accidents or in fighting over diamonds. Distrust is feeding superstition and causing a strange and terrible phenomenon: Thousands of children are being accused of witchcraft.
About 20km east of the provincial capital Mbuji Mayi is a place known in the Luba language as Muambulia Bantu. It’s a green, fertile valley with rolling hills, but beneath the beauty lurks danger: The earth is pockmarked with holes up to 28m deep – almost 100 feet. The smaller the person, the better they can manoeuvre once they’ve been lowered down the rope.
The boy at the bottom of the hole is Punda Lione: “It’s dark down here,” he says. From that far down the daylight above is just a pin prick. He has been there since 7:00 a.m.; it is now midday. He is employed by an adult to dig out the dirt and put it into sacks, which he then ties to a rope. The sacks are pulled to the surface; other children employed by the same man carry them down the hill to a creek where they wash the dirt in a sieve, picking out what in Luba is called ‘mbongu’ or diamonds.
|© David Hecht/IRIN: A boy shows diamonds on his tongue to a diamond dealer at Muambulia Bantu village, near Mbuji Mayi, in the province of Kasai Oriental. Young children have been conscripted by different armed groups to extract natural resources.|
All of a sudden a cry goes up: “Mbongu! Mbongu!” A boy has found one and instantly hides it in his mouth.
The children occasionally find diamonds worth thousands of dollars, but are not allowed to keep them, says Charles Tchibanza, a sociologist from Mbuji Mayi University. “These children have no protection except from the people exploiting them. Their lives are at risk. Most are here because they were abandoned by their families,” he adds.
The number of children abandoned in Mbuji Mayi is staggering. Tchibanza conducted a survey in 1999 and counted almost 10,000. He’s started updating the survey and says it’s clear there are now many more. He blames sorcery.
“Many people here believe in witchcraft. It’s part of Luba tradition, although what is happening today in Mbuji Mayi is something new. Before, if someone was accused of having demonic powers the village would take the person and make them go through a purification ceremony. No one would ever be thrown out of their homes; certainly not a child. What’s happening today is a result of urbanisation and desperation caused by diamonds,” says Tchibanza.
What exactly do diamonds and witchcraft have to do with each other? Tchibanza says it is a matter of ongoing research. What is clear is that diamond mining accounts for at least 70 percent of the economy in and around Mbuji Mayi. Yet despite a few garish mansions, most people live in mud huts without electricity or running water. Though the region is fertile, people don’t have enough to eat. Farming does not offer the possibility of sudden wealth in the same way as diamonds. But diamonds bring frustration and breed distrust and superstition. There is a climate of fear here.
Some people are capitalising on the fear. On almost every street corner in Mbuji Mayi there’s a house of worship. Many are local Congolese churches headed by self-appointed preachers, who have set themselves up as exorcists, such as Jean Pierre Onakofcheko. He lives in a hut with many children.
“Some children that come to me, I look at them and see they have been falsely accused of witchcraft. Some just imagine they are witches, and then there are others who are witches. I use the Holy Spirit in me to divine who is really a witch. Then I use my powers of prayer to cleanse them,” says Onakoko.
There is a 12-year-old girl with him, Konku Monique, whose parents threw her out for being a witch, an accusation she vehemently denies. She says she came to Onakoko because she had nowhere else to turn, and because she wants to make sure she never becomes a witch.
“I have seen Priest Onakoko exorcise child witches. Terrible things come out of their mouths. I have seen a child vomit up a live insect – a very big insect. I was very scared. I am still scared, that something like this could happen to me,” says Konku.
Priests like Onakoko are part of a vicious circle of diamonds, witchcraft, and death in which the children get caught. Those worst off join armed groups known as ‘suiciders,’ which cross illegally into the province’s richest diamond area south of Mbuji Mayi called the polygon, owned by MIBA, the state diamond-mining company. There, children often get caught in gun battles with MIBA’s security forces and many are killed or disappear for ever.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is trying to help the abandoned children with special schools, teaching carpentry and other trades to encourage the children to seek alternative sources of income. Says Unicef child protection assistant Lisset Khonde, “We have many successes but this problem will continue as long as so many people are impoverished and as long as diamonds offer the false hope of prosperity.”
|© David Hecht/IRIN: A wealthy dealer examines rough diamonds in his shop in Mbuji Mayi. According to the UK-based NGO Global Witness, diamonds sales in DRC have not lead to better standards of living for the Congolese people, even though at least one million people in the country work in this sector.|
Up the road from the Muambulia Bantu diamond fields is a small village where adults and children are gathered at what looks like a little market, but here the trade is in diamonds. In each stall a dealer sits with a set of scales and a pile of dollar bills.
The clients are mostly barefoot children. One of them stands before a dealer with his mouth open wide showing little diamonds on his tongue. If he’s lucky he’ll get a few dollars, says Khonde. But it’s more likely the boy is cheated or ends up dead at the bottom of an abandoned diamond pit.
From this market the dealers take the diamonds into town and sell them to bigger dealers, many Lebanese, who say they never buy diamonds from children under the age of 15. The head of the diamond dealers’ association in Mbuji Mayi is Alfonse Ngoyi Kasanji, who a few years ago sold a diamond for $6.2 million. “Using children to mine diamonds is a crime. But the government is doing nothing to stop it and when I buy a diamond from an adult I have no idea if it was mined by a child,” he says.
Dealers such as Kasanji take their diamonds to Belgium, India, and Israel and sell them to bigger merchants, who know even less about how their stones were brought out of the ground. There is a worldwide system to verify diamonds. But this Kimberley process is designed to stop rebel armies from buying guns with diamonds – not to verify anybody’s age. Until the problem is addressed, children in Mbuji Mayi will continue their dangerous work and many will continue to die.
Copyright 2006 IRIN: United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.