MUTARE – Douglas Dube was one of the first people to descend on Chiadzwa when word spread that diamonds had been discovered in the arid and impoverished area in Manicaland Province.
Dube, 31, an unemployed father of two, was wallowing in poverty. He could hardly pay rentals for a one-roomed house he lodged in the poor township of Sakubva, Mutare’s oldest high-density suburb.
When word reached him about the discovery of diamonds in Chiadzwa Dube joined thousands of other desperate citizens to Chiadzwa, then an unknown and desolate place.
A few months later Dube’s life had been transformed. Like the old adage Dube’s story was that of rags to riches.
Suddenly he was a proud owner of a Sedan 323 vehicle and an assortment of household properties that he had never dreamt of owning in his lifetime.
Then he moved into more decent accommodation in the city’s middle class high-density suburb of Dangamvura.
But despite his newly acquired status Dube never stopped going to the fields to mine for the precious gems.
Once he got the diamonds from the fields immediately he could sell to buyers who were readily available close to the fields.
The buyers came from all over the world – from South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Guinea, Mauritania, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and Belgium.
The buyers could part with as much as $US200 a carat – a killing considering one could sell up to 15 carat stones.
Dube’s only impediment was the police and their vicious dogs that could constantly chase them from the fields. But Dube, and thousands others, soon found a way round the problem. They formed syndicates with the police officers manning the fields.
Suddenly poor police officers who earn less than US$10 a month found themselves driving automobiles of all kinds and shapes.
Police launched several operations to rid Chiadzwa of illegal miners but these never yielded results largely because they were seen as superficial exercises meant to hoodwink authorities. Thus, illegal mining continued unabated.
Then two weeks ago Dube was surprised to see helicopters hovering over the diamond fields. Then heavily armed soldiers entered the fields.
That was the beginning of a brutal campaign to remove illegal miners from the fields and also to rid the area of dealers.
Reports then began to filter that bodies of dead panners were piling up at the mortuary at Mutare Provincial Hospital. As of yesterday 19 bodies, in a state of decomposition, had not been claimed by relatives and are still at the mortuary. This prompted the police to make a public call to relatives with missing relatives to visit the mortuary.
“We have 19 bodies at Mutare Provincial Hospital all of the them unidentified from Chiadzwa area and another body from the same area at Old Mutare Hospital. We are appealing to people whose relatives have been missing from Chiadzwa area to go and check with the hospital authorities,” said police spokesman in Manicaland Inspector Brian Makomeke.
“We have a total of 20 unidentified bodies. The hospital authorities have said their mortuary facilities are not working well and the pilling of bodies is straining their facilities. Some of the deceased panners might be foreigners and we are not sure because they all did not have any form of identification. Most of the panners come to Chiadzwa without any form of identification with some coming from as far Bulawayo. There are no forms of identification,” Insp Makomeke said.
An unknown number of bodies were scattered in the forests surrounding the fields. Several died from gunfire wounds while others died from aliments such as cholera.
So brutal was the campaign that it was dubbed Operation Hakudzokwi kumunda meaning Operation you would never go back to the diamond fields.
About 20 000 illegal panners who had made the diamond fields their permanent homes fled in all directions. They had come from all over Zimbabwe. Within a week of the operation there was not a single miner left in the diamonds fields.
Dube was lucky to escape unhurt. But he says it was hell and vowed not to return to the diamond fields as long as the soldiers are there. “I thank my Gods I escaped unhurt,” Dube said a day after arriving in Mutare. “It was hell on earth. The soldiers are shooting to kill.”
Human rights organizations said the army was using heavy-handed tactics to remove the illegal miners and described the operation as “genocide”.
“This is genocide,” said Trust Maanda, regional coordinator of the internationally acclaimed Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
Reverend Stephen Maengamhura, regional coordinator of ZimRights, a human rights watchdog said the soldiers were violating human rights. “There is a wholesome violation of rights,” Rev Maengamhuru said.
He said while it was noble to bring order at the fields but it did not warrant the violations of human rights being perpetrated by the soldiers.
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition weighed in saying the violations should be documented so that the perpetrators will be brought to book once normalcy comes to Zimbabwe.
With the diamond business now history, Dube is likely to return to his old ways – poverty. But perhaps he may offload some of the valuables such as the 323 vehicle and other household goods he had bought if he is to sustain his family.
“I am not employed and this was now my only means of survival,” he says, adding: “I may now be forced to sell what I had bought when I was in Chiadzwa.”
Dube’s story is similar to that of thousands other desperate Zimbabweans who descended on Chiadzwa seeking for instant fortunes.
Professionals were not spared either. Teachers, especially those in schools close to the diamond fields abandoned the chalk and joined the illegal mining business. School children also deserted the classroom to join their teachers. Even factories and industries were left with skeleton staff after workers left for Chiadzwa.
Jonathan Matondo, 37, a senior Mathematics teacher at a secondary school close to Chiadzwa has not reported to duty for almost a year now.
“Why should I suffer when I can easily go to Chiadzwa and become a rich person,” Matondo said. He said if things normalize he could go back to the classroom.