Wednesday, January 15, 2014

BLOOD DIAMONDS by Greg Campbell ✰✰✰✰

In Blood Diamonds author Greg Campbell has a dual purpose: to tell the story of an African civil war that is based on economics as opposed to ethnicity or religion and to bring to light the dark genesis of conflict diamonds.  He is successful on both fronts.  Right from the first pages the reader is swept into the horror of life for noncombatants under the control of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the rebel group fighting for dominion over the diamond trade.  A warning for the squeamish-like most books on modern African history, this one is very graphic.  However, Campbell’s no-holds-barred approach definitely prevents the reader from shying away from the agonizing reality that was life for even the most innocent of bystanders during Sierra Leone’s tragic civil war.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Sierra Leone’s conflict, which raged from 1991 until 2002, is that unlike most civil wars this one had nothing to do with religious or ethnic power plays. This was a complex blood for diamonds tapestry, motivated by the basest of all reasons: greed.  Because of this, foreign powers were extremely reluctant to commit troops and help end the conflict.  The United States was especially reticent as in 1999, when the war reached its pinnacle, the horrific memory of Mogadishu was still very much on the minds of the American public, making even attempts at diplomacy career suicide for politicians and diplomats. The problem simply felt insurmountable; at the time most Americans had no concept of just how exactly diamonds were being used in international black commerce.  Diamonds pack a huge value into a tiny, highly portable stone, and as such they have become the currency of choice for everyone from African dictators to Hezbollah, a source of funding that can never become a bank account bound asset frozen by foreign governments.  Campbell also lays out a very convincing trail of evidence linking the Al Qaeda attacks of September 2001 to conflict diamond financing.  

As you read this account of the outrages committed to convert these diamonds into the pretty baubles that western consumer societies desire, especially the United States, where 80% of all the world’s diamonds find their market, you cannot help but wonder how one can tell if the rock in their engagement ring originated in the blood bath of Sierra Leone.  The sad truth is that once a raw diamond has been cut and polished it is impossible to tell where the stone was mined, and certificates are virtually worthless, as the stones pass through literally dozens of middlemen, many of which are legitimate and could fabricate the certificate downstream of the conflict.  Britain and Switzerland even have an agreement to process each other’s stones and then claim the other as country of provenance.

Greg Campbell does an excellent job tracing the history of diamond mining and worldwide sales, giving a riveting depiction of the world famous DeBeers company, from its inception to its current place in the market.  This was absolutely my favorite aspect of the book.  I was blown away by how the power of marketing can so directly influence not only the economics, but the politics and even daily life of people in so many different economic strata around the world.

The audio, which is well narrated by Tim Weiner, clocks in at a short seven hours.  Admittedly, I did look up a map of west Africa, as I needed a clear picture in my head of the geography of the area (I cannot say whether the book provides maps), but that was simple and there is no other reason not to do this one in audio format.  Weiner’s performance hits just the right tenor for the subject matter; it would have been easy to become overly dramatic in parts, but he ably avoids that trap, lending dignity and substantive emotion to a narration that is in turns informative  and affecting.  Overall a tightly edited work of fine narrative nonfiction, which gets four stars from me and the final thought that this is one of those subjects about which we can all use educating.

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