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Diamond smugglers on a wing and a prayer: Child miners try to sneak out priceless stones from African mines using homing pigeons. Now MATTHEW GAVIN FRANK tells their heartbreaking story

Child miners try to sneak out diamonds from African mines using homing pigeons

Msizi is afraid of getting caught. He is 13 years old, sitting cross-legged in the red dust and white sand outside a diamond mining town on Southern Africa's Atlantic coast.

In his lap he holds a pigeon. The bird's name is Bartholomew, and he coos as the child strokes it with his one good hand. 

Msizi works in the De Beers diamond mines — and he uses his bird to smuggle out illicit gemstones.

The child coughs up blood. Diamond dust is embedded in the pink muscle tissue of his lungs. For the rest of his life, short or not, he will have difficulty breathing.

It's Sunday. We are on a beach close to the Namibia-South Africa border, on the outskirts of a restricted mining town called Oranjemund.

For the better part of 80 years, this part of the West Coast was owned by the De Beers conglomerate and officially closed off to the public. 

During its heyday, everyone in Die Sperrgebiet (the Forbidden Zone) laboured for De Beers and no one was allowed to leave.

One recent survey found that 46 per cent of diamond miners were between the ages of five and 16, writes MATTHEW GAVIN FRANK. Pictured: An 11-year-old boy working at a diamond mine in the Carnot region of the Central African Republic, in May 2015

One recent survey found that 46 per cent of diamond miners were between the ages of five and 16, writes MATTHEW GAVIN FRANK. Pictured: An 11-year-old boy working at a diamond mine in the Carnot region of the Central African Republic, in May 2015

De Beers kept the residents distracted with trucked-in luxuries. Fully furnished and well-stocked houses were provided. 

The company set up a school system for the children, and provided recreational clubs. 

De Beers even had a shadowy agreement with satellite companies to redact images of the Forbidden Zone from their files.

Beginning in 2007, De Beers deemed portions of this land to be 'over-mined,' and the doors to some of these towns slowly began opening to the public for the first time. 

Though the company still controls much of the area, and though signs threatening trespassers with imprisonment and/or death still proliferate by the roadside, restricted entry is now possible.

Msizi is talking to me because his mother urged him to. She wants the family's story to be told, but she is afraid: smuggling is rife and the penalties are brutal.

People sometimes just disappear, even children. If a miner dies at work, the body might be buried underground, to prevent other miners from using the corpse to smuggle out stolen stones. 

Simply talking to me could be dangerous, so I assure Msizi and his mother that I will change the names of everyone I interview.

The boy scratches at scars under his armpits. These are rope burns, from the lines tied under his arms before he is lowered into the pit each day by older, bulkier miners. 

At the bottom of the shaft, he spends each day digging and filling burlap sacks with dirt that is then sifted for diamonds at the surface.

'Some days are good,' he says, 'and some days are bad. Some days, no stones. That's when they think I'm hiding something.

'I only use Bartholomew if I find a good amount, early in the day. I have to wait for when no one is looking at me.' 

He smiles, and raises Bartholomew as if assessing his weight. 'We are good at being invisible.'

Some miners hide pigeons in their clothes. Msizi has a craftier method. Each day, he takes his metal lunchbox into the mine. 

Usually it contains half a peach chutney sandwich and a bag of Simba tomato sauce-flavoured crisps. But if he only takes the crisps, there is just enough room for his pigeon.

Though mineworkers have to pass through an X-ray machine upon entering and leaving the mine, South Africa has made it illegal for mining companies to over-radiate their workers.

The machines light up and whirr in the same way, whether or not they're conducting an X-ray. 

To reduce the chances of being discovered, Msizi doesn't risk bringing in his pigeon if another smuggler has been caught within the past few days.

The security guards will be more alert than usual and, if they find Bartholomew, they will kill him — either by wringing his neck, running him through with a ballpoint pen or biting his head off.

Sometimes, there will be other punishments. Miners' fingers will be broken or even cut off. 

The little finger on Msizi's left hand was snapped by a guard simply because he was suspected of smuggling.

Once through the X-ray machine and in the mine, the boy will transfer the bird to the loose folds of his overalls. 

While he works through the sludge, he secretes diamonds under his tongue. At a quiet moment, he looks around. 

If a miner dies at work, the body might be buried underground, to prevent other miners from using the corpse to smuggle out stolen stones. Pictured: An open-cast diamond mine in southern Africa

If a miner dies at work, the body might be buried underground, to prevent other miners from using the corpse to smuggle out stolen stones. Pictured: An open-cast diamond mine in southern Africa

The other diggers keep their heads down, their backs bent. If they know what he plans to do, they are pretending not to notice.

Msizi packs the diamonds into four bags he has fashioned from sacking, and binds one to each of the bird's feet and one beneath each wing, with ligatures sewn of gemsbok hide.

Then he carries Bartholomew to the bottom of a shaft and lets him go. He does not wait to see him fly up into the light — if a guard spots the bird, Msizi does not want his own face seen.

The pigeon flies back to Msizi's family shack, where his mother is waiting. She retrieves the diamonds. 

Later, they will be traded to buyers from organised crime gangs. Msizi says she is paid the equivalent of about 15p per carat. 

A stone that might fetch £50,000 in a jeweller's shop in London will fetch perhaps 50p in the shanty town outside Oranjemund. 

Other smugglers want drugs, especially 'tik' or crystal meth.

De Beers officials know the miners use homing pigeons. One cynical security guard told me he could recognise a smuggler on sight, because that meant everybody: all the miners were potential thieves, he said. 

By that logic, every pigeon was being used to ferry stolen diamonds. 

The mining companies put pressure on local governments, which passed laws declaring it illegal to raise pigeons. In one district, it is illegal not to shoot a pigeon on sight.

Because so many birds are killed, either in flight or when they are spotted by the X-ray machines, the temptation for miners is to overload them with diamonds. 

That creates another hazard — weighed down, with bags under their wings that make it impossible for them to fully flap, the exhausted birds falter and land along the beaches of the Diamond Coast.

When this happens, a frenzy of diamond-hunting erupts along the sands. People yell, fight and tear the diamonds from the pigeons' feet.

Rumours spread, and at least one of the mine workers — maybe the culprit, maybe someone mistaken for the culprit — will have his little finger broken. And the punishments can be far worse: eyes gouged out, or hands, ears, feet or head cut off.

When I ask Msizi about these punishments, and by whom they are administered, he goes quiet.

Though we are alone, he checks the beach for eavesdroppers.

He tells me that he is prohibited from talking about it — that if the mine security guards find out he has spoken to an outsider like me, they may call in the services of someone called Mr Lester.

His voice grows shaky. He says Mr Lester is ten metres tall, breathes fire, has sharp teeth, no eyes, the wings of a raptor and the ability to infiltrate one's dreams.

Naturally, I dismiss this part of the story. It is just a nightmare, spread to scare the children. 

And a great number of miners are children: according to a 2016 report by the U.S.'s Bureau of International Labour Affairs: 'Children in South Africa [continue to] engage in the worst forms of child labour.' 

One recent survey found that 46 per cent of diamond miners were between the ages of five and 16.

But it is not only the children who are terrified of Mr Lester, I discover. In Alexander Bay, just south of the Namibia-South Africa border, I speak to a police inspector who asks not to be named.

He tells me that no one has ever seen the real Mr Lester. He is believed to have more body doubles than the former South African president Jacob Zuma. 'He's invisible. He's like a spirit.'

Depending on who I ask, Mr Lester is human or giant or spirit or half-man-half-animal.

He can read your thoughts and detect fluctuations in your body temperature to determine whether you're lying. Even De Beers executives are afraid of him.

Of course, I want to see him. But finding him won't be easy. My first contact is with a former security guard from the Kleinzee mine, Nico Green.

He arrives for our meeting in a bar, 40 minutes late, and orders brandy and Coke. He's about 6 ft 6 in in a rugby shirt and little navy shorts, with a flat-top haircut and large round glasses.

With very little prompting, he begins to detail the corruption that swirls around the diamond industry. In one town, Port Nolloth, every public official was arrested for smuggling.

'Until they're caught,' he says, 'they live in the lap of luxury. Big pink gangster houses. 

'We once found all these diamonds mixed with stolen ammunition in shoeboxes under the mayor's bed. He had this big syndicate going — 33 people from Port Nolloth alone.'

Pigeons were commonly used to transport gems out of the mines. 'When I was working for De Beers, if I see a pigeon, it's my sworn duty to execute it. 

'If I don't, I'm encouraging bad behaviour.'

'Still, smugglers find a way,' Nico continues. Sometimes that means concealing a tobacco bag filled with diamonds and greased with beeswax in their backsides. 

Sometimes, it's worse — slitting open their forearms and stuffing the diamonds inside the wound.

Due to fear of HIV and Aids, the security guards would often rush a bleeding worker to the hospital unsearched, whereupon a doctor or nurse, who was in on the scam, would either retrieve the stones from the gash, or sew them into the arm to be removed later.

Talk to the people along this coast, he says, and they will tell you that 'God put the diamonds in the ground, that there's no such thing as an illicit diamond.' 

He adds: 'My wife works for De Beers, and I told her, if you step over the line, I will take you out. No, really.'

Nico says Mr Lester is the chief of all the 'executioners'. He points me to a lesser 'executioner', a De Beers security executive named Johann MacDonald.

MacDonald doesn't mind that the miners call him an 'executioner'. His other nickname, he says, is the 'hangman' — 'It's all in good fun,' he says. 

He wants me to understand that the company cracks down on smugglers to prevent the exploitation of child miners.

One gang cut through the fences around an excavation site and dug channels into the pit, going down many metres. 

Some miners hide pigeons in their clothes. Msizi has a craftier method. Each day, he takes his metal lunchbox into the mine

Some miners hide pigeons in their clothes. Msizi has a craftier method. Each day, he takes his metal lunchbox into the mine

The pit is similar to an upside-down pyramid, wide at the top but narrow at the deepest point — so narrow that only children can fit in the tunnels.

'It is a hell you can't imagine,' he says. The children dig in a circuit, fighting for breath as they scoop up the mud and hand it back. 

When they can't go on any longer, they circle back and gulp for air, then go back down.

The conditions are so bad that most of them are given 'tik', says MacDonald.

'With the underground mines, it's worse,' he says. Smugglers are lowered by rope over a mile into the earth, where they live in darkness for years.

'Supplies are lowered in the dead of night by co-conspirators, and when they are finally brought up to the surface, they have to be blindfolded to protect their eyes.

MacDonald tells me Mr Lester is no phantom: 'He's real, flesh and blood.'

Mr Lester stays at a guesthouse in the desert, he says.

'He's a chameleon. I'm not even 100 per cent on whether he's really South African or not. 

'Some people think he's KGB or CIA, or without any real allegiance. A mercenary, or king of the mercenaries. 

'But I just know him as the former director of all security, everywhere, for De Beers. The only guy they trust to do certain, specialised things.'

But after meeting Mr Lester, I can confirm he is real. I receive instructions from the farm's landlady to wait for him in the bar at midnight. 

He arrives at one minute past — a frumpish man in a white button-down shirt with heavy jowls.

His name, in fact, is Lester Le Roux, former director of De Beers mine security. He says he hears I've been asking about pigeons.

'A diamond can't steal itself,' he says heavily. 'And a diamond is like a beautiful woman — people lose control of their cerebellum, their minds. 

'But for the miners, there are definite on-site consequences if they are caught with a diamond on their persons.'

I think of Msizi's lame finger. And I remember too that in 1991, one miner caught trying to smuggle a stolen stone was shot in the head.

'One woman was caught hiding diamonds in the socket behind her glass eye,' says Mr Lester. 

'Boot heels! They hollow them out . . . But we've taken new measures. We tilt the floor of the X-ray rooms with wedges, so these things show up more easily in shoes.'

For a while, he explains, people would try to throw diamonds over the perimeter fence.

'Then we put in a second fence, made the distance between them greater, but they got really clever with bows and arrows. 

'We added even more fences. Something had to get over these fences, and it was a pigeon.'

Mr Lester wants me to know that, despite his reputation, he is not a monster.

'In spite of all these ruthless things you hear about De Beers, I actually do care, and have a high regard for human rights.

'I'm heading up a division on voluntary principles of security in regard to human rights, and I'm even questioning our search procedures, because you can't search for a diamond by holding your hands inches away from the body. 

'You need to touch the body. Human rights make it very difficult for security and easy for the criminals.'

He makes eye contact with me, then looks at his thumbnails. 'I don't want to do this with the rest of my life,' he says. 'It's been 14 years of hell.

'I don't want people to think of me like this. There were ten people killed in one mine collapse in 2012 — some of them were underage, but at least one man was over 60.'

After I leave the guesthouse, I return to Alexander Bay, to see Msizi one last time.

We meet in a little park, opposite a cafe with no name. I buy him a sandwich, which he is too shy to eat in front of me. I ask him about his pigeon.

Msizi looks nonplussed. 'He's somewhere in the desert,' says the boy. 'Dead, of course.'

Adapted from Flight Of The Diamond Smugglers by Matthew Gavin Frank, to be published by Icon at £14.99. 

Copyright © 2021 Matthew Gavin Frank. To order a copy for £12.74 go to or call 020 3308 9193. 

Free UK delivery on orders over £20; promotional price valid until July 12, 2021.

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Comment by vaughn mitchell on July 1, 2021 at 3:55pm
This is so f* king sad, these are African mines, own by the white man, instead of the government owning the mines, pay adults to work it, and use the money from the mines to fund education, and end poverty they let the white man own it, and enslave their own people, f****** sad.

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