The Rock-Mining Children of Sierra Leone Have Not Found Peace

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Though the war has ended, Charles Taylor has been sentenced, and mineral companies are thriving, the poor of this West African country are little better off. 

ADONKIA, Sierra Leone -- Ten years after the end of Sierra Leone's bloody civil war over control of its diamond fields, children as young as 3 years old continue to toil in its mines, hoping at best to earn a few pennies for food in a country still wracked by extreme poverty.

But the children aren't looking for diamonds, which at least hold the hope of a big payday. In a sign of how desperate things remain in Sierra Leone, they're reduced to one of man's most difficult labors in their attempt to survive -- breaking granite rocks into gravel and selling the piles, cheaply and infrequently, to construction companies for use in cement.

Child labor is nothing new in Sierra Leone, but children working in ad hoc rock quarries southeast of Freetown, the capital, is a new wrinkle resulting from the war, said Foday Mansaray, the headmaster of a free school he founded as the only alternative to a life of hard labor for most of the children enrolled there.

During the civil war from 1991-2002 -- which saw one of its final chapters close on Wednesday, when an international tribunal sentenced Liberian leader Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison for supporting the rampaging rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) -- Freetown drew tens of thousands of people fleeing violence in the undeveloped provinces of the country. Uneducated and unskilled, and often with no means to return to their homes, they made do as well as they could. Colonies of migrant gravel miners now live in crude zinc-walled shanties on the hillsides overlooking coastal Adonkia, Angola Town, and Lakka, communities that also draw Sierra Leone's few tourists to their well-kept beaches.

The life of a rock breaker is as hard as it sounds. Men with shovels remove soil to expose large granite boulders, some the size of small cars. They heat the boulders with wood fires or burning tires to make them easier to split into chunks with chisels and sledgehammers. Once the rubble is small enough to lug downhill, the women and children take over. Older kids use mallets and small sledgehammers to crush the rock into pebbles, while very small children use ball-peen hammers.

Leone of 2012 appears very much the same as when the war ended in 2002, at least as far as the average citizen is concerned.

On a visit last year, I saw a 3-year-old use an old hammerhead on a stick to smash rocks held in place by her tiny foot, which was clad only in a flip-flop. When buyers come, as often as twice a week or as infrequently as twice a month, the gravel is measured into a pan the size of a large skillet and sold for 1,300 leones per pan-full. That's about 30 U.S. cents, to be split by everyone along the chain. An industrious rock crusher can fill about 10 pans per week, but whether anyone buys that much is out of their control.

Mansaray, a former cell phone salesman who fled to Guinea as a refugee during the RUF war, has devoted his life to getting the children off the hillsides and into his school, two ramshackle tents made from sticks and tarpaulins. Not only is gravel mining a hopeless existence with no prospects for improvement, it's also dangerous. Children often miss the rocks and hammer their toes or shins. Most miners have had gravel shards hit their eyes and cut their faces, and the majority of the school children have some injuries. Mariatu Sesay, an 8-year-old girl, fell and broke her arm at the elbow a year ago. Although set by a doctor, the bone healed at an odd angle and is permanently deformed.

"The main goal of our school is to help children in excessive poverty, especially the children who are engaged in the stone mining," Mansaray says. "We withdraw them [from the mine] and educate them for free."

The stone miners are one of Sierra Leone's many postwar contradictions. On one hand, life has improved in measurable ways, including a new easy-to-travel road from Freetown to the diamond-rich city of Kenema and most of the way to the diamond mother lode in Koidu City. Road crews are busy in Freetown as well, and the improved road that passes the gravel mines now takes only 30 minutes to travel its 10 miles from the capital, when a decade ago it took three hours. Along the way, there are new homes being built, some right next to the quarries where children provide the raw material. Traffic includes newer Mercedes sedans and Porsche SUVs, which almost always belong to foreign businessmen or their well-connected local representatives.

As large-scale mining operations churn the country for diamonds, gold, and other precious minerals, on paper at least, Sierra Leone seems to be benefiting. The government's annual revenue for 2010 exceeded budget projections by nearly 20 percent. Exports surged 48 percent over 2009 to a total of $341 million. Exports of diamonds, bauxite, and rutile set records, growing over the previous year by 45, 66, and 13 percent, respectively. Iron ore companies have begun extraction operations near the central city of Makeni. Oil was recently discovered offshore.

Yet most of the population still lives without power, clean water, affordable education or competent medical facilities. The IMF estimates that 60 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, surviving on about $2 per day. The country still ranks near the bottom of the UN Human Development Index. By and large, Sierra Leone of 2012 appears very much the same as when the war ended in 2002, at least as far as the average citizen is concerned.

"If you let these children go down astray, the country will go astray."

According to Bailor Barrie, a frustrated and outspoken doctor at Koidu's government hospital -- where major operations are performed next to windows because there's no power for the lights --  things are "exactly the same" as they were 20 years ago, before the RUF rebels exploited the lack of infrastructure to gain early acceptance among those suffering in the provinces.

During the war, it was easy to excuse the lack of resources for social service agencies and public works. The rebels brought legitimate diamond exports to a halt, robbing the country of lucrative taxes by smuggling the goods to neighboring countries -- most commonly to Liberia, where Taylor pulled the strings and facilitated a thriving black market. The brutality of the long-running war destroyed most of Sierra Leone's other economic activities.

But the war has been over for a decade as of this year and, by most measures, there's little to show for the government's attempt to revive its economy and harness its natural resources for the benefit of its citizens. In a country rich in precious stones, people like Mansaray often say that they consider it a disgrace that children have to mine common ones in order to survive.

The hope of improving Sierra Leone falls to community members themselves, who've given up on the government and grown tired of relying on the limited resources of nongovernmental organizations. Mansaray and his school -- which is run purely on charity and donations and which perpetually lacks most basic supplies -- is only one example. Alfred George, who worked for 12 years with the Environmental Foundation for Africa but is now unemployed, uses his experience with ecological issues to try to end gravel mining.

It may be hard to imagine that community members would care about such things as environmental degradation from clear-cutting trees, when there's no telling where the next meal will come from, but there are tangible reasons to address it. Stripping the hillsides has led to an infestation of snails on the flatlands; with their natural ecosystem barren from the digging of boulders, the snails' eggs wash downhill during the rainy season. Snails destroy crops. To help prevent large-scale deforestation, George promotes what he calls an "eco-stove" made of clay, which requires fewer pieces of coal or firewood to heat water than a typical campfire.

The operators of Lakka Beach's numerous beachfront bars and guesthouses have formed their own business association to adopt and encourage practices to lure tourists to the area. The chairman, Mohammed Kanu, who runs a bar and guesthouse called Club Med, said those practices include enforcing a strict no-hassling policy on beach boys -- the souvenir salesmen and pimps. As a result, Lakka Beach is among the most pleasant for visitors tired of fending off the vendors and hustlers who are endemic elsewhere.

These efforts are important, but clearly only the first steps. It's a short 15-minute stroll from the beaches to the closest gravel quarry. On every trip, Mansaray finds a new child pounding stones and in need of rescue.

"Our struggle is the funding. Without this school, where will the children go?" he asks rhetorically, gesturing to a hillside echoing with the tinny pings of hammers on rocks.

"They are the future of this country," he says. "You see, we are going to our graves; they are coming up. And among these children, if they are educated, you have doctors, lawyers, engineers, geologists, so many careers that can benefit the country."

And if they're not educated?

"Then they are blind," he said. "They are dark, their brains are opaque."

"If you let these children go down astray, the country will go astray."

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Greg Campbell is the author of Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World's Most Precious Stones and other books.

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