Sat in a thatched shack at the edge of a muddy shantytown, the
gunmen keep the peace - for a price - among hundreds of illegal
miners who swarm over the steep sides of the glittering open pit,
scratching out a living.
The mine, owned by Canada's Axmin <AXM.V>, was overrun by the mainly
Muslim Seleka rebels more than year ago. It now forms part of an
illicit economy driving sectarian conflict in one of Africa's most
unstable countries, despite the presence of thousands of French and
Seleka fighters - many from neighboring Chad and Sudan - swept south
to topple President Francois Bozize in March last year. Months of
killing and looting provoked vicious reprisals by Christian militia,
known as "anti-balaka", that pushed the rebels back, splitting the
landlocked country of 4.5 million people into a Muslim north and the
“We control the mine. If there is a problem there, we intervene,"
said Seleka's local commander Colonel Oumar Garba, sipping tea
outside a villa in Axmin's abandoned compound. "People don't want
the French peacekeepers here because they know they'll chase them
away from the mine."
Axmin suspended activity at the mine in late 2012 after rebels
occupied its camp. The firm says it is monitoring the situation. CEO
Lucy Yan did not respond to requests for comment.
Thousands of people have died and more than a million fled their
homes in Central African Republic amid the violence between the
Muslim Seleka rebels and Christian militia.
Scenes of cannibalism and the dismemberment of Muslims by Christian
mobs in Bangui sowed fears of ethnic cleansing, prompting France to
deploy 2,000 peacekeepers to its former colony. After tens of
thousands of Muslims fled the south, the United Nations agreed to a
12,000-strong mission from September.
A ceasefire signed last week in the capital of neighboring Congo
Republic raised hopes of an end to the conflict. But many fear local
warlords on both sides will resist attempts to break their grip over
resources, especially diamond and gold mines.
At Ndassima, 60 km north of Seleka's military headquarters in the
northern town of Bambari, sweat-soaked laborers toil beneath the
gaze of Seleka gunmen to produce some 15 kilos of gold a month -
worth roughly $350,000 on the local market, or double that in
Weighing gold on a balance in a hut at the foot of the mine, Jimmy
Adoum says buyers are scarce but some pay their way past rebel
checkpoints to carry gold to Bangui and east to Cameroon.
Further north, diamond fields around Bria and Sam Ouandja provide
revenue for rebels, who extract protection money and sell diamonds
to dealers in Sudan and Chad, experts say. From there, the gems are
trafficked to Antwerp, Dubai or India.
"Commanders on both sides are profiteering from this conflict. Both
the anti-balaka militia and Seleka are involved in gold and
diamonds," Kasper Agger, field researcher for the Enough Project, a
Washington-based think-tank. "If we are going to make peace, we need
to offer them an economic alternative."
"JEALOUSY, NOT RELIGION"
Before Seleka seized power in March last year, Central African
Republic ranked as the world’s 12th largest diamond exporter.
Thousands of artisanal miners produced more than 300,000 carats a
year from thin alluvial deposits.
Much of the fiercest fighting centered on these deposits, especially
in the west. In the mining town of Boda, nestling in forests 100 km
west of Bangui, the anti-balaka militia have besieged thousands of
Muslims in the market district.
French troops, their armored personnel carriers aligned on an
escarpment overlooking the town, now keep the two sides apart.
Opposite the Muslim enclave stand ruins of Christian homes destroyed
in fighting after Seleka withdrew in January.
Both sides accuse the other of starting the clashes. Christians have
seized Muslims' mining equipment and cattle from nearby pastures.
Some who venture from the Muslim enclave have been killed by
militia, their bodies dumped in the river.
"If the Muslims stay there 40 years, we'll wait for them. We want to
kill them," said Nicaise Wilikondi, 45, an ex-teacher who lives in a
camp for displaced Christians.
Like elsewhere in Central African Republic, in Boda it was Muslim
middlemen who controlled the diamond trade and reaped its profits,
while most of the poorly paid mine laborers were Christians, fueling
Cherif Dahirou, Boda's main Muslim diamond trader, said the
Christian militia had seized the nearby artisanal pits, but he
refused to leave the town where he has lived for 38 years.
"This isn't about religion: it's jealousy," he said under an awning
in the grounds of his large house in Boda, in the besieged Muslim
enclave. Originally from Chad, he spoke in Arabic, not the local
Sango language: "I know the anti-balaka commanders, Romeo and Malou:
they used to work the mines."
The region west of Bangui is controlled by Christian militia leader
Alfred Yekatom, a veteran soldier known as "Rombhot" after the movie
hard man Rambo, who has profited from several uprisings. He collects
thousands of dollars a week from roadblocks staffed by his fighters,
according to U.N. experts.
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In Boda, militia leader Habib Saidou, a former soldier loyal to
Rombhot, said the Muslims would be left in peace provided that 14
people who controlled the diamond trade - including Dahirou and
Mayor Mahamat Awal - left the town forever.
“Until then, the Muslims have to stay behind the red line. If they
cross over, we're going to kill them.”
"EVERYONE IS BUYING"
Since independence from France in 1960, Central African Republic has
lurched between a series of coups and rebellions as politicians and
warlords strove to exploit its resources.
In an attempt to prevent "blood diamonds" from funding this
conflict, the Kimberley Process - a group of 81 countries, including
all the major diamond producers - imposed an export ban on raw gems
from Central African Republic last year.
Local trading houses like Sodiam and Badica are still buying gems to
stockpile until the ban is lifted. The transitional government of
President Catherine Samba Panza is trying to enforce a
"traceability" scheme to show diamonds are not mined in rebel
But with only a handful of officials in its anti-smuggling
taskforce, her cash-strapped government has little prospect of
curbing the traffic in gemstones.
“Everyone is still buying. Some people take it to Chad, then it goes
to Dubai," said Saliou Issoufa, whose family works in the trade in
Bambari. He said some Seleka leaders were directly involved in the
trade - something corroborated by a U.N. report.
Seleka's two main factions have for years vied to control the
diamond mines in the remote northeast. The Union of Democratic
Forces for Unity (UFDR), made up of fighters from the Gula tribe,
controlled Bria. The Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace
(CPJP), grouping Runga fighters, seized mines at Ndele.
Yet Roland Marchal, a researcher on the region at Sciences Po
university in Paris, said diamond trafficking was not the sole
motivation for Seleka's creation. It was formed to combat
discrimination against Muslims, who were routinely extorted by
security forces and denied access to schools and hospitals by a
Christian-dominated civil service.
“This conflict is not just about resources," said Marchal. "If it is
then why would we see this debate on nationality and whether Central
Africans can be Muslims?”
FRANCE SEEKS AN EXIT
France, with its military already stretched fighting against al
Qaeda allies in the Sahel, is pushing hard for a peace deal in
Central African Republic so it can cut back its mission.
Yet the Brazzaville talks failed in their objective of addressing
the key questions of disarmament and a roadmap for a lasting peace,
including a power sharing deal.
Prospects for peace have been complicated by the return as Seleka's
leader of hardline former President Michel Djotodia, whose
supporters favor officially dividing the country in two.
His deputy Nourredine Adam, who has returned from Sudan with
hundreds of fighters, was hit with U.N. sanctions this year over
allegations of rights abuses and diamond smuggling.
Many fear the ceasefire is unlikely to hold. With anti-balaka
attacking close to Bambari in recent days, Seleka's senior military
commander General Joseph Zoundeyko has said he is ignoring the deal:
“We did not want partition but it happened: the Christians drove us
out of the south."
In a recent report, think-tank International Crisis Group called for
mines to be occupied by international peacekeepers.
Yet diplomats and Seleka insiders say Djotodia and Adam will not
hand over control: "Bambari and Bria are the financing of Seleka.
They will never let them go," said one senior diplomat.
At the Ndassima mine, bare-chested laborers bristle at the thought
of foreign interference in their business.
“We don’t want international forces here. They’ll take the mine from
us,” said one youth covered in glittering yellow mud on the lip of
mine. “Now, Christians and Muslims live here in peace. If the French
come, there will be violence."
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Peter Graff)
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