Chiadzwa - the world's biggest diamond field?

In a remote corner of Zimbabwe, the true worth of a vast new diamond field emerges. Robert Mugabe's response? To allow his mutinous military to enslave villagers as miners and seize the profits - and destroy fragile protocols against blood diamonds.

Foreign Reporter of the Year Dan McDougall and photographer Robin Hammond risked their lives to get dramatic first-hand evidence of the unimaginable suffering of the miners for Live magazine. The mailashas emerge as cautiously as impala from the shadows of scorched yellow kikuyu grass that fringes the long highway to Mutare. Their name translates as 'smugglers'. There are three in all and they're no more than 14 years old.

diamonds_hammond04(Picturted: Sieving soil through a plastic sack in search of diamonds)

They reach out into the road at the approach of our slowing BMW and take a deadly gamble, forming their fingers into a distinctive diamond shape. In their damp palms are tiny grains of diamond. They have chosen the final thralls of dusk - a time of shadows and distraction, when the sights of army patrol rifles are blinded by the vast and sinking orange glow in the sky - to make their sales pitch to a car full of strangers. Our translator shouts at me to drive on. 'We mustn't stop,' he screams. 'They'll be dead in a week. The road is littered with the bones of smugglers. They are signing a death warrant by sticking their necks out on this cursed road.' We've driven 10 hours from the South African border in a fog of frayed nerves and off-road diversions to avoid army checkpoints. Posing as black-market diamond traders, we're travelling towards the very hell they are fleeing: Zimbabwe's Wild East. Here, within hiking range of the road we're driving, are the remote diamond fields of Marange, shallow earth mines uncompromisingly controlled by Robert Mugabe's henchmen.

The full extent of the diamond fields in eastern Zimbabwe became clear following discoveries made in June 2006. They're vast - 400 square miles - making the scrubland amid the bleakly beautiful mountainscape possibly the world's biggest diamond field. The finds were made by British prospecting firm African Consolidated Resources (ACR). It had just taken over the rights to explore the area from De Beers, which had failed to renew its mining licences despite having found diamonds before 2006. In September 2006, Mugabe's Zanu (PF) government reneged on its deal with ACR and seized back the mining rights to the region. When Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made army pay almost worthless, soldiers rioted in the capital Harare. Without the patronage of the military, Mugabe faced losing power. Against the ruling of the country's courts, he ceded mining operations to the direct control of the police and army.

diamonds_hammond05(Pictured: A miner tries to sell his diamond - wrapped in a dollar bill)

Amid public confusion over ownership, a diamond rush began around the Marange fields. Over 10,000 illegal artisanal miners invaded the site and began working small plots. But by January 2007, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono, warned that the country was losing up to US$50 million a week through gold and diamond smuggling.

The diamond industry is a licence to print money for the military. The response of both the police and, in particular, the army to bring their interests under control was brutal. Launching Operation No Return in October 2008, the army ordered a shoot-on-sight policy, killing hundreds of illegal miners. Men were strafed by helicopter gunship, and a cordon was set up around the diamond fields. As many as 10,000 villagers living near the fields were relocated 15 miles away.

The army then set about doing the unthinkable: recruiting those same villagers under gunpoint and forcing them to dig for diamonds. This is the situation that remains today. The Live magazine investigation has uncovered shocking first-hand evidence of the violent enslavement of alluvial miners. These men, women and children are being forced at the barrel of a gun by soldiers to dig out diamonds from the earth with their bare hands.

The road to Mutare has become one of the most militarised in all Africa everyone is suspected of being a diamond smuggler. Army checkpoints scar the highway at 500-yard intervals. Everywhere is the detritus of soldiers: cigarettes, moonshine bottles and bullet casings. Scorched earth from cooking fires stains the lay-bys. At regular intervals, women stand behind pulled-over buses, their hands stretched in the air as their private parts are invaded and frisked by scruffy soldiers and radicalised youngsters from the Zanu (PF) youth militia.

We are posing as diamond buyers from Israel, and are on the road just south of Mutare, the provincial capital on the Mozambique border. At each checkpoint the car is painstakingly searched. The soldiers will then pull us aside and produce small gritty slivers of diamond from hidden belt pockets in their military fatigues. The going rate for poor stones is $35 a gram. In the West, the price would be 20 times as high.

The closer we get to the mining fields the purer the stones become and the more our translator warns us our lives are in danger. Even with our cover as diamond dealers we are out on a limb here. At each checkpoint the soldiers tell us that most of the dealers are black - Nigerians. With acknowledgements to Live Magazine, The Daily Mail, Robin Hammond and Dan McDougall.

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