With not much else to do, thousands of disaffected young men in the border region between Liberia and Cote D’Ivoire have turned to illegal gold mining – a dangerous, draining profession with scant reward and potentially devastating consequences.
The camps grew in number and size, and by 2011 some of them, including the Bentley and Barteljam camps, were home to as many as 7,000 people. They had their own markets, schools, bars and cinemas, but no sanitation or healthcare.
It was in Barteljam, a sprawling, overcrowded, rural slum, that I met Roosevelt Nyantee, also known as Alpha Golf, a former fighter with Model, the Liberian militia that helped oust former president Charles Taylor in 2003.
Although only 30 years old, he looked much older, his features ravaged by war and years spent in the bush fighting hunger and disease. “After the war ended in 2003 we were given small money by the UN to lay down our weapons,” he told me. “We were promised retraining as mechanics or tailors, but few of us received this training. So I came to Zwedru to look for work as a gold miner.
“This is where I met my boss man, a Krahn brother called Saesu, who had been a commander in Model. He offered me work digging in the deep pits here at Barteljam.
“Working in the deep pits is much harder work than working in the open pits, but it pays better because you need strength and courage. It is very dangerous work and many of my friends have died in cave-ins.”
Nyantee took me to the deep pit where he works up to 16 hours a day. The site is located on the side of a hill, about two miles north of the main mining camp. Like a vast rabbit warren, the area is pock-marked with holes, covered with tarpaulins, and interspersed with rudimentary shacks where exhausted miners sleep, cook bush meat and rice, and drink and smoke marijuana.
In Zwedru, via contacts, I tracked down a major dealer called Mustapha. Although cagey at first, he opened up over cigarettes and mint tea after we had discussed mutual friends. “Some of us are moving up to four kilos a month via Conakry or Bamako. Once the network is established and the relevant people are on side, it is not a problem to move these amounts. All you need is the flow of gold, the flow of capital, and trustworthy couriers who can make the journeys to the big West African cities or even to Dubai.
“I have been to Dubai many times. I can even travel business class and take the gold with me as cabin luggage. They never ask questions in Dubai. From the airport I travel to certain cheap hotels that African traders use to meet my buyers.”
I asked him who his buyers were. “Usually Arabs, but also we see Persians and even people from Khartoum.”
The government in Monrovia is powerless to do anything about the industry and its associated trade. Said a Liberian mines ministry official: “Quite simply, we lack the necessary resources and capacity to intervene. There was a belief within the authorities that at least it kept young men busy.
Special Correspondent, ANCIR
Open Society West Africa
Daily Maverick (SA), World Policy Journal (US)
Liberia, West Africa
Special correspondent; Heinrich Bohmke (Cross-Examination), Alex Yearsley (Adviser), Drew Forrest (Copy Editor), Mark Schapiro (Editor)
Investigative Dashboard Africa