When violence erupted in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s, missionaries Paul and Mary Kortenhoven didn’t take it very seriously at first.
The Kortenhovens had lived in Sierra Leone for more than a decade, working as missionaries with the Christian Reformed Church and raising their family in the small northern village of Foria.
Nobody called it a war then, Paul Kortenhoven says. “It was only a ‘rebel incursion’ . . . a temporary problem that would go away.”
Instead, the violence crept closer. Soldiers of the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) cut a bloody swath through the country, terrorizing, maiming, and killing. They were supported by Liberian warlord and future president of Liberia Charles Taylor, as well as others who coveted Sierra Leone’s diamond wealth.
“There were village burnings, summary executions, a massacre in Pujehun, and rumors of children being abducted and brainwashed in a hidden jungle camp,” Kortenhoven recalls.
Even in the early days, Kortenhoven says, he had little doubt that the violence was linked to diamonds—the glittering gems that have played a major role in every Sierra Leonean conflict since they were discovered there in 1930. Anarchy and violence provided a perfect cover for diamond smuggling, and those who opposed it could easily be paid off or killed.
Author Greg Campbell calls the 1990s conflict in Sierra Leone a “jewelry heist.” He says Liberia nurtured a close relationship with the RUF, training troops and supplying weapons. It was like armed robbery on a national scale, with diamonds as the loot. Rebels smuggled rough diamonds across the border to Liberia, where they were marketed as Liberian stones, ending up in the display cases of jewelry retailers around the world.
Violence and Fear
The violence that reached the village of Foria in November 1994 continued to spin out of control throughout the years that followed. Paul and Mary Kortenhoven watched 14 years of work in community development disintegrate before their eyes. People with whom they had lived and worked were uprooted and afraid, and the Kortenhovens had to turn their attention to securing assistance for internally displaced persons and for refugees who had fled to neighboring countries.
Throughout Sierra Leone, missions closed down and missionaries were sent home. The Kortenhovens were encouraged to take a new assignment, but they decided to stay.
“Ignoring the war was just not an option for us,” says Paul Kortenhoven. “The fighting, burning, and killing was just plain wrong; it was a violation of every human right that we knew. We had to do something to bring peace, to right what was wrong, to help save the children and show solidarity in it all with the people who had made this our family’s home for 14 years.”
Together with CRCNA national staff and Catholic Relief Services, they mobilized a massive relief response, negotiating with the RUF to secure humanitarian assistance for people in the areas it controlled and participating in rescue missions by helicopter to war-torn villages.
Still, Kortenhoven wasn’t satisfied. “There was no way to deal with the war without dealing with the diamonds,” he says. From his loyal supporters back home, he now asked for another kind of aid: To take a stand against conflict diamonds.
He spoke to synod in 2001, helped write letters for the CRC which were sent to the U.S. Congress and the White House, lobbied for reality and peacekeeping with Bishop George Biguzzi (Catholic Bishop of the North in Sierra Leone) and Jim Mc Laughlin (director of Catholic Relief Services) at the UN in New York and with the U.S. Congress in Washington D.C.
Kortenhoven knew that only a large-scale campaign could move the world to action. The people who got such a campaign started were Ian Smillie, a Canadian humanitarian aid worker and researcher, his colleague Lansana Gberie, Alex Yearsley of Global Witness in the United Kingdom, and Rory Anderson of World Vision, U.S.A.
Smillie had fallen in love with Sierra Leone as a CUSO volunteer in the 1960s and his own experiences and a visit to Sierra Leone for CAUSE Canada motivated him to get involved
“At first we were just raising money, but then we realized that diamonds were a crucial part of the problem,” Smillie says. “One thing led to another, and we asked 15 NGOs to provide some money to carry out a study on diamonds in Sierra Leone.”
Kortenhoven followed Smillie’s progress and began to feel hopeful. At last the media might recognize that what was happening in Sierra Leone was happening because of diamonds. “The publication The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone Diamonds and Human Security, written by Smillie, Lansana Gberie, and Ralph Hazelton in January 2000 exposed the issue and let it be heard by the right people,” Kortenhoven says.
“It was one of the first times the diamond industry was seriously being held to account, and they couldn’t deny the problem anymore.”
The Kimberley Process
Despite growing public awareness and United Nations backing in the form of sanctions, the illicit diamond trade continued to wreak havoc. But the seeds of change had been planted. The diamond industry grew increasingly amenable to the idea of curtailing the flow of “blood diamonds.”
Finally, in May 2000, government representatives and diamond industry leaders gathered with representatives of the NGO community in the South African town of Kimberley to discuss what could be done to combat the trade in diamonds from conflict zones.
The result was the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, an internationally recognized system to identify rough diamonds by country of origin, establishing national import and export standards to prevent the sale of diamonds from war zones.
If Kimberley was to work, it needed the support of the United States—the world’s largest consumer of diamonds. Kortenhoven and others from hundreds of grassroots church and missions organizations now turned their attention to lobbying for passage of U.S. legislation that would back up the Kimberley scheme.
In July 2004, together with signatories from more than 50 other U.S. church and mission organizations, Kortenhoven put his name to an open letter addressed to the World Diamond Congress in Antwerp, Belgium. While the letter didn’t threaten a boycott, it implied that Americans would not continue to purchase diamonds at the cost of human lives.
Clean Diamond Act
Kortenhoven also lent his support to the work of Representative Tony Hall from Ohio, who had visited Angola and Sierra Leone and had a deep commitment to halting the trade in conflict diamonds.
Hall not only understood the issue but had the will to make change happen. He introduced the Clean Diamond Act, legislation intended to ensure that the import and export controls adopted in the Kimberley process would be reflected in U.S. law.
The Clean Diamond Act was also supported by Representative Vern Ehlers of Michigan, a member of Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids. Dating back to his work as chairman of a CRWRC task force on world hunger, Ehlers actively supported the CRC’s efforts to stop the blood diamond trade and was instrumental in setting up meetings between Kortenhoven and congressional leaders.
Finally, in a move that many believe helped to tip the balance of public opinion in favor of the Clean Diamond Act, World Vision ran a television ad during the popular TV drama “The West Wing” about blood diamonds and the need for regulation.
“Buy a diamond and you may be supporting terrorism in other countries,” actor Martin Sheen said as images of the war faded into one another. “In parts of Africa, rebels control diamond mines, terrorize children and adults, maiming them for life . . . The Clean Diamonds Act can stop the killing by stopping the sale of these conflict diamonds and profits these terrorists use to wage war.”
A Growing Momentum
Building on this growing momentum, Kortenhoven, Peter Vander Meulen of the CRC’s Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action (OSJHA), and others in the CRC once again mobilized church members to write letters and contact elected representatives in support of Hall and the U.S. legislation—as did hundreds of other denominations and grassroots groups across the country.
Kortenhoven spoke to synod, in many churches and colleges, and through the media encouraging international awareness of the war and the need for stronger U.S. and Canadian involvement in peacekeeping efforts. He and others called on church members to visit local diamond retailers to ask about the origin of the diamonds on sale. It got to the point, says Kortenhoven, that it was “impossible not to hear about how diamonds were fuelling conflicts in Sierra Leone and Angola.”
But U.S. legislative support of the Kimberley Process still hadn’t been secured. Then came 9/11. A November 2001 article by Doug Farah in the Washington Post titled “Al Qaeda Cash Tied to Diamond Trade” brought the horror closer to home.
Farah linked the Osama bin Laden terrorist network to the illicit sale of diamonds mined by rebels in Sierra Leone. He quoted one European investigator as saying, “I now believe that to cut off al Qaeda funds and laundering activities you have to cut off the diamond pipeline.”
In 2003 the Clean Diamond Act was passed by the House of Representatives and approved by the Senate. The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, ratified and adopted by 52 governments in November of the previous year, was at last fully implemented.
Not a Perfect Solution
Susie Sanders, who heads up the conflict diamond campaign for a UK-based group called Global Witness, says that gaps in the implementation of the Kimberley Process mean that conflict diamonds can still reach international markets.
More must be done, Sanders says, but “the Kimberley Process was an important international development and this was possible due to the cooperation of governments, industry, and NGOs.”
Will the increased diamond revenues that result from Kimberley ever flow down to the people who need it most? Kortenhoven says that without careful monitoring of how diamond revenues are used, it is doubtful that much will change. “No one is seriously monitoring how it is being used to benefit the people, especially the actual miners themselves,” he says.
Areas in Sierra Leone that are rich in diamonds remain poor in terms of basic services such as roads, wells, schools, and hospitals. Miners work in wretched conditions for less than subsistence wages.
Still, he notes, the campaign did make a difference.
“The truth was that hundreds of thousands of people were being killed in wars that were being fueled by diamonds,” Smillie says. “It didn’t take long for the diamond industry to react, because they knew we were right.”
A Transforming Journey
“This is a story about being faithful in the small things,” says Peter Vander Meulen, coordinator of the CRC’s Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action, who helped to wage the campaign against conflict diamonds.
Vander Meulen says it took everyone working together to bring about change. “People need to get the message that their unique skills and gifts can be really critical to a larger global effort.”
“We all have the ability to effect change,” Kortenhoven says. “We just need to open our eyes to the pain caused by injustice—and care enough to do the thing that God puts in front of us to do.”
The CRC in Sierra Leone
- 1976—Synod appoints a task force to consider the problems of world hunger and propose a response.
- 1978—The synodical committee on World Hunger recommends that the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) work with Christian Reformed World Missions to choose a small country in which to build an integrated development program to tackle the problems of physical and spiritual hunger. Sierra Leone is selected and the two agencies begin work as Christian Extension Services (CES).
- 1978—The synodical committee also recommends that CRWRC begin a hunger education program; that Christian educational institutions study hunger-related issues; that an Annual Day of Prayer and Fasting for the world’s hungry be observed by CRC churches; and that families consider giving an additional 1 percent of their income for hunger relief. This annual World Hunger Campaign focuses on Sierra Leone for the first few years.
- 1980—A team consisting of a field director, community developer, agriculturist, health nutritionist, literacy worker, and two church developers arrives in Sierra Leone.
- 1981—A second team arrives.
- 1994—Violence from the civil war reaches Foria, where CRC staff are located. Many projects are destroyed and local people are killed.
- 1995—The CRC carries out a relief project to provide aid to those who have been hurt and forced to flee their homes and jobs.
- 1999—With almost the entire country outside of Freetown under rebel control, plans are made to nationalize the entire ministry.
- 2002—The last North American staff leaves Sierra Leone.
- 2004—Plans are made to find an African pastor from a partner Reformed church to head up church development in Sierra Leone.
- 2006—Rev. John Phiri, from the Reformed Church in Zambia, arrives in Sierra Leone.
- 2007—The new Christian Reformed Church in Sierra Leone gathers to ordain two pastors, baptize believers, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
About the Author
Rachel Boehm Van Harmelen is a writer and consultant specializing in communications for nonprofit organizations. She and her husband, Peter, have four children and live in Fall River, Nova Scotia, where they attend All Nations Christian Reformed Church