• The Necklace – Part Two

      0 comments

    Now we shift to Sierra Leone, the West African country best known for Blood Diamonds.

    images (2)

    In 1961 the country obtained its independence from Britain and from there went straight down hill. The horror of civil war began, with a succession of barbaric rulers whose first priority was to eliminate all former enemies, with maximum torture. The country fell further and further into chaos, disease, poverty and the killing of families and children at random. Depending on who was sucking the country dry, blood diamonds were the currency of madness. These diamonds are those that have been mined illegally (and sometimes legally) and then traded for cash and munitions – usually to be used by a rebel group. A trademark of the rebels was to hack off the hands and/or feet of any members of the opposing force.

    The diamonds were usually mined out in the bush where there was no government presence and then smuggled into a neighboring country – then to diamond dealers to be turned into cash. But the government also did much the same thing. On occasion, the diamonds would be traded directly for arms, but at a huge discount. Before all this mayhem, Sierra Leone had a very interesting history. Thousands of African Americans were sold into slavery as they were dragged to this staging area. Why, because the town of Freetown has the third best port in the world and was best fitted for the slavers use. Many of the captured slaves were from the Sierra Leone area, and longed to return to their homeland.

    Through the impetus of Thomas Peters, an abolitionist, the Sierra Leone Company was established to relocate Negro Loyalists who had escaped enslavement in the United States by seeking protection from the British army. After America’s independence many were granted land in Nova Scotia to repay them for their loyalty to the crown. They founded Birch Town but faced harsh winters, poor land and racism. Led by again by Thomas Peters, 1196 of the Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia crossed the Atlantic to start the Colony of Sierra Leone. The first settlement – Freetown – was in 1792. Eventually thousands of freed slaves who resided in different parts of the British Empire were relocated to Sierra Leone. But the colony continued to be ruled by Her Majesty for over 150 years. The excitement of independence was short lived, however, as tribal conflicts and jealousies brought forth dictators who shifted diamond production into large bank accounts in Switzerland.

    During the height of the ten-year civil war, which began in 1991, the blood diamond trade was at its zenith. Roughly fifty thousand people lost their lives during this time period. All sorts of diamonds ended up in Antwerp, New York, and other diamond centers – many stones with questionable history. This in a country only 90 miles wide and 200 miles long – about five million people, three an a half million of them below the poverty line. There was no trash collection; people just dumped their garbage somewhere away from their own house – or in most cases, just outside their home.

    But a few schemed on how to escape this hellhole of a country. Ishmael Tejan-Cole was the descendant of one of the original slaves who came from Jamaica. He had worked panning for diamonds for three years – paid by the day plus a small percentage of the diamonds he found. But he felt he was mistreated and eventually became a secret member of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). This movement was trying to overthrow the government of President Momoh.

    But his loyalty to the RUF diminished every day; he was tired of working so hard and then turning over what he had stolen to the RUF military commander through intermediaries. He had a hidden pouch inside his pants where he could secret the stones he stole.

    Then one day he watched a fellow worker pretend to scratch his leg, but the man had really put something large in his cut-off dungerees. As evening fell, Ishmael hid and then hit the man with a small log from behind as he was relieving himself in the brush. The man dropped instantly and Ishmael retrieved the large diamond the man was carrying. It was over 50 carats. He quickly returned home to his wife Kayenta to show her what he had taken.

    “You will be tortured and killed,” she said. “Take the diamond back and throw it in the river. Better we be poor than dead.” “No,” Ishmael said, “We have to leave this life before we have children. I will find a way to hide the diamond so no one will know.”

    Leaving was much harder than Ishmael imagined. He had signed a contract for five years; two years to go, and even then, the place was more like a slave camp that anything else. Everyone was spot searched, and their huts dug through. But the guards could be bribed; and some of the time they were just lazy and didn’t do their jobs. But you couldn’t leave the compound without a permit – which were extremely hard to get – and then you were stripped searched inside and out to see if you had any contraband. There were two rows of barbed wire 100 yards apart so no one could throw rough diamonds into the forest. In between the fences were hyenas that were always hungry. Ishmael had seen one worker torn to pieces when he tried to climb the second fence.

    When their five years were up, some of the diggers stayed because they were afraid of the outside or didn’t have enough money to leave. They were given one day off a week, and there was food and housing and they could save some money, but any babies born were sent to an orphanage fifty miles away until their parent’s contract was up. Everyone was terrified; all the guards were members of the military, some of them only 15 years old. They were indoctrinated starting at ten and trained to use weapons by twelve. There were always rumors that the RUF was going to take over the mine, but it did not seem to happen – month after month went by

    images-4

    Finally Ishmael had his plan and an opportunity to put it to use. Having this valuable stone was what he had been waiting for – he had hidden it in the river bank until he was ready to go. He knew that the retail value after being cut would be millions of US dollars, but he just wanted enough for he and Keyanta to escape this life and the country. They had both been studying English at night to increase their chances of a successful getaway. They had saved about a thousand US dollars during the three years.

    images

    Ishmael had been watching the riverbanks for some time. He suspected there was a tunnel about three feet below the water on the opposite bank – the roots of a red mangrove disguising the entrance. He knew because he had watched a crocodile head for the tree, with just its eyes showing, and then disappear and not surface. The croc was fat, because the guards fed it every evening. It was a company pet and the guards would tempt it by making one of the workers go out in the middle of the stream with a rope around him until it came after man, making bets to see how close the reptile could get before they jerked the rope and dragged the worker to the bank. When the man crawled up the bank he was given a month’s salary, and so far only one man had lost a foot. They continually tossed garbage into the river to the point that the beast was always around. They called him Fat Boy. He was a chubby croc and seemed slower than others, clumsy because of his weight – that gave Ishmael hope.

    Kayenta listened to his plan and said she was completely against it. He told her he was going ahead no matter what and explained her role in their escape. She finally nodded assent and they decided to execute the plan at the first opportunity. It came two days later.

    That evening, as the workers were getting ready to quit at sundown, and the guards were feeding their crocodile, Ishmael suddenly plunged into the deep part of the river, yelling and screaming as if he had gone mad. The guards began shouting and then as he swam away, they started to shoot, over him at first and then towards him. As the first shots were fired he submerged into the muddy water, stroking underwater for the other bank. He stayed by the tunnel, hiding in the mangrove roots, making sure that the diamond was tightly bound around his waist. He used a hollow reed to breathe when he heard the guards searching the bank in the dark.

    Now was the real challenge, and he choked back his fear. He put up just enough of his head to clear the water. There were men on both sides of the river with torches. He pulled his foot- long knife from inside his shorts and crept along the mangrove roots. He found a four-foot stick and quickly bound the knife to it with willow bark. Now he had to have luck with him.

    He took a deep breath and slowly searched for the opening. It was less than ten feet away. He pulled himself into the tunnel, which was just wider than the beast. He felt movement next to him, but kept his courage, knowing it was just a catfish. Inch by inch he moved forward until he could sense that the water was just above his head. As he expected it was pitch black inside, but no crocodile, just his musty odor. He wondered how the croc could breathe in here. He knew that they could hold their breath for long periods of time, but if he slept here he would need air. As he ran his hands along the ceiling of the three-foot high cave, he could feel a fist-sized holes slanting upward against the bark. There was a slight movement of air – the small spaces between the interior mangrove roots. In the morning there should be some light filtering down from above.

    images (1)

    “Now,” he thought, “I just have to wait for Mr. Crocodile to show up.” He knew that crocodiles were mainly nocturnal, and that he would probably be safe for a while, but just to be sure he planted the bottom of his slim spear into the mud with the point headed down the tunnel. He was afraid that the reptile would come before dawn and he knew he could not stay alert. He alternately dozed and jerked awake during the night, fearing the worst. He had reoccurring dreams of the croc chomping down on his body, dragging him to the river – rolling and ripping him to pieces – then gulping chunks of his remains down its gullet. Each dream seemed more real than the last – sometimes he cried out as he awoke. Then half awake, he thought he could feel a tremor, but couldn’t tell if it was a dream or not.

    Sure enough the croc was scrambling into its den. Ishmael braced himself right where the tunnel expanded into the lair. The croc stopped, smelling and sensing something was wrong, but then crept forward. Thrusting with his spear Ishmael stabbed the beast, but hit the snout, doing no damage and glancing off. Then the beast opened its mouth as it crept upward – the carrion odor of its breath hitting his face. He shoved the spear again and it went into the croc’s mouth. As it entered, he pushed with all his might and felt the flesh give in the croc’s throat. He only had 18 inches of rod left in his hands when croc jerked it free. “I’m finished,” he thought. Kayenta was right; greed has led me to a horrible death.

    But the fates were with Ishmael that day, the crocodile backed quickly out of the lair trying to dislodge the knife, and Ishmael could hear him thrashing in the river. As it got light Ishmael came slowly out of the tunnel, holding his breath once again below the water level. He stayed in the reeds and finally stuck out enough of his head to look across. Everything was in an uproar, men were searching the mangrove roots on both sides of the river and there were workers throwing hooks into the main part of the stream. He knew from past experience that this would go on for a couple of days. Then the bosses would decide that there was no way had he escaped the crocodiles and if he did, his body probably had washed up on shore downstream, where he would make a nice meal for a variety of animals. One of the workers said to his boss that Ishmael had told him he thought he had AIDS, didn’t want to live, and that was the reason for his behavior.

    For two more days all he had to defend himself in the lair were sharpened sticks as the search went on. Then he decided it was safe to go. The croc had not returned. Trusting to luck again he slowly made his way upstream at night and then underwater with a reed snorkel in the day, most of the time hiding in the mangrove roots. No one would ever believe that he would go upstream. Two miles downstream there was a chain link fence across the river to make sure no one escaped.

    It took him a full day and two nights to get a mile and a half above the camp before he found a large branch hanging over the river. He climbed up and found a place to rest and to think about the rest of his plan.

    The day after Ishmael had supposedly been lost, Kayenta, who was a cook, became ill with grief over the loss of her husband. She would not get out of bed and talked about killing herself all the time. The third day, she was gone. There was no way out of the compound, so it made no sense. Next day, they found a bloody shirt of hers outside the fence. “No big loss,” said her supervisor. Her main attribute was her beauty and her body – and she was a good cook. No one knew that she had told an overly friendly guard that she was looking for a new man. He wanted to come to her hut that night, but she said she would only meet him outside the double fences. He agreed, took her out, and quickly shortened his life span to zero.

    Rejoined, two days later as planned, Ishmael and Kayenta made the long horrible journey south into Liberia. After working for a year and saving every cent they could, they both got visas and flew to Brussels – and their diamond? It went with them.

    PART THREE (last part) next time

    Joseph Ollivier

    Talesuntold.net

    June 2014

    Write a comment