Monday, May 21, 2007

Blood Diamonds

No, not the movie, but a documentary that History International Channel ran recently. It was about two hours long, and not for the squeamish (and perhaps the rest of this posting isn't for the squeamish--but you probably need to know about what is going on there). You are probably aware of the concern that trade in diamonds from war zones fuels civil wars in Africa. These stones are called "blood diamonds" or "conflict diamonds" because rebel factions use these stones (sometimes mined with slave labor) to buy weapons with which to attack the central governments. (I am not going to call them "legitimate governments" because few African nations have anything but a bunch of criminals running them, with only the vaguest semblance of human rights or democracy.)

Avoiding "blood diamonds" has never been difficult for me. When I bought my wife's engagement ring, she didn't want a diamond; she wanted a garnet. Since then, although I could afford to buy her something extravagant, fancy jewelry isn't her style. For her, the song could be rewritten, "Books Are A Girl's Best Friend."

What I was not prepared for was the barbarism of some of these wars. I knew about Liberian warlord General Butt Naked, whose troops went into combat naked, and played soccer with the heads of their enemies. Rape is, unfortunately, common in many wars where officers fail to impose order on their subordinates. What I did not know about was the widespread hacking off of hands and legs as punishment. They interviewed a lot of men and women who have no hands or feet. One of these factions reasoned that anyone that had voted in the recent election had made an inappropriate use of their hands--and would not be allowed to do so again. There were other atrocities discussed in the documentary that are far too dreadful for me to mention here.

You may be aware that when the Belgian Congo was the personal property of the King of Belgium, at the close of the nineteenth century, workers who failed to meet their ivory quotas would have their hands or feet cut off by their supervisors. (And you think your boss treats you bad.) White missionaries took photographs of the horrifying results, and as a result, the King of Belgium was shamed into turning over his personal possession to the Belgian government, partly because late Victorian/Edwardian sensibilities were horrified by this. Leander A. Bigger, Around the World: An Illustrated Trip for Education and Pleasure (New York: Lyceum Travel Bureau, 1915) recounts Bigger's 1904-05 travels. When he reached Monaco, he had this to say about the Belgian King's winter home there:
A short distance away on another point, extending far into the sea, the King of Belgium has a magnificent residence, while across the Mediterranean beyond the burning desert in the rubber forests of Africa a hundred thousand black skeletons toil under the cruel lash to enable their heartless boss to cut a swell in the over-fashionable Riviera. History will probably brand Leopold as the monster without a peer in the twentieth century.
Oh the innocence of such a statement; the twentieth century was just getting started on the making of monsters.

The King of Belgium's defenders argued that this hacking off of limbs wasn't official policy, but that native foremen were doing this on their own. I never knew whether to believe such a transparently self-serving excuse before, but I guess that I can believe it now. It has been two generations since the colonial powers left these Africans--and the barbarism keeps getting worse, not better.

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