In 2008, the government of Zimbabwe launched an operation code-named Operation Hakudzokwi, which means "There is no return" in the Shona language. In an effort to clear Chiadzwa and the surrounding Marange district of illegal miners, the armed forces attacked the village with helicopter gunships, spraying bullets, tear-gassing the mines and following up with foot soldiers and packs of dogs. Human Rights Watch estimated the deaths at about 200, but local villagers claim that many more were killed and secretly buried. The BBC later published photographs of a mass grave where 68 bodies were buried. A police woman working in the area reported seeing piled bodies that were later quietly buried.
Security forces have kept up the violence ever since, and few residents are willing to talk to strangers. A human rights activist from the area spoke to The Atlantic on condition of anonymity to protect his connections. "Life is cheap in Marange," he said, "and people are afraid to talk, but when they do you protect their anonymity because that's the only way you can get to the root of the problem. You cannot produce a report if anyone who would talk to you has disappeared."
According to this activist, travel in the area is severely restricted. Only local villagers are allowed in and they repeatedly have to show documents that identify them as having been born in the Marange District. Those who leave the village or travel back in are closely watched, and everyone lives in a state of terror. Soldiers in the area have also recruited forced labor to work in the mines, including children, the human rights activist said, and they hold the power of life and death over every civilian in the area.
Court documents identify the London-listed African Consolidated Resources (ACR) as the legal owners of the claims but according to ACR's legal representatives, the diamond mining concern was forcibly evicted from the mines only months into its operations. Despite successive court rulings in ACR's favor, the company's employees have been kept out at gunpoint and have watched helplessly as their claims were overrun. The Zimbabwean, an independent Zimbabwean newspaper, has identified prominent members of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) party, including Vice President Joyce Mujuru, Air Marshal Perence Shiri and Army Commander Valerio Sibanda, among those who frequent the mines. The soldiers who were supposed to provide security have expanded into illegal yet officially sanctioned mining ventures of their own.
In a move that sent shocks throughout the diamond world in January, the Zimbabwe government and its ally Mbada Mining canceled an auction of at least 300,000 carats of diamonds, leaving the world to wonder what would happen to the massive cache. An employee in the Ministry of Mines, speaking on a condition of anonymity for reasons of personal safety, told The Atlantic that that the diamonds are to be quietly sold through the underground market while the government tries to clean up its act in order to qualify for Kimberly certification.
While such a move would not a surprise, it would be difficult to make such a highly publicized collection disappear. However, there may be ways to make it possible. Britain's Telegraph newspaper recently published aerial pictures of a massive new airport in Marange, with runways much larger than those of Harare International Airport. Why would the government need facilities for massive aircraft in the middle of the bush? The Telegraph cited diplomats and analysts who believe the runway will be used to export diamonds and to receive arms shipments, "probably from China."
The initial sale's cancellation was thought to be caused by massive political pressure brought to bear by activists, who cited the gross human rights abuses and corruption in the tender process. The Mining Ministry official pointed out that this was only part of the reason. The cancellation was also a result of infighting within the ZANU PF over how the spoils were to be divided, resulting in President Robert Mugabe shifting powers from the Minister of Mines, Orbert Mpofu, to Emmerson Mnangagwa, a close ally valued for his efficiency in carrying out Mugabe's unsavory "operations." Blame for the corruption in the tender process has subsequently been shifted onto the disgraced Mpofu's shoulders, as the party scrambles to bring harmony back into its ranks, as well as clean up its affairs with the diamond marketing fraternity.
It is not clear how far Zimbabwe is willing to go in terms of cleaning up the diamond sector, or even if it is possible to clean it up at all, given the government's bloody history on this issue, and the human rights violations that lie at the very heart of the industry.
The real tragedy of Zimbabwe's diamond story can be seen in Chiadzwa village. A few years ago, it was a remote hamlet that no one had heard of, a simple peasant community of mud-plastered huts, with barefoot children tending cattle, men toiling in the dusty fields, and women walking for kilometers to fetch water. When diamond deposits were discovered, life changed forever for the villagers. The Zimbabwean military has turned the once quiet rural district into a nightmare.
Zvisinei Sandi is an exiled Zimbabwean journalist currently interning at The Atlantic.