UN Memoirs – 2 : The Lure of Diamond

UN Memoirs – 2 : The Lure of Diamond


UN Memoirs – 2 : The Lure of Diamond

By Col Akhil Gupta, Retd

In my first briefing, on joining the UN Mission in Angola, it became apparent that UNITA rebels controlled very large swathes of the interior areas, while the Government forces controlled the coast line and major provincial towns.

Vast areas existed where the writ of neither the Govt nor the rebels ran because the poverty was so extreme that it did not matter to either of the parties involved in the civil war.

It was clear that the two adversaries had both, a strong support base based on tribes and ethnicity and economic resource for funding.

Angola is the 3rd largest producer of oil and all of it used to be off shore. Since the Govt controlled the complete coast line, it was the Govt’s exclusive source of revenue.

The rebels had the interior to themselves and in the North East lay the diamond mines. UNITA had its exclusive control over it.

The mining of diamonds has caused human rights violations and conflicts in many parts of the world being a source of greed, corruption, and violence.

The term and concept of Blood Diamonds came into being also from here in Angola and not just Sierra Leone as one usually thinks after watching Leo Caprio’s movie “Blood Diamonds”.

The LORE of my diamond journey could have even been a journey to a dungeon in the prison or at least to a police station had the LURE been irresistible.

One day, my Portuguese language interpreter broached the subject of freely available diamonds in Angola and I could carry them for my near and dear ones, when I returned to my country on completion of my tenure.

I was intrigued and agreed to meet a seller. I was asked to promise that I would not divulge the seller to the Govt authorities.

To my surprise, the seller was just a non-descript common man carrying a small roughened up cloth bag with an easily concealable leather pouch.

With a scoop from the pouch, he produced a few rough, uncut, partly shiny, partly dirty, crystallised stones which normallywouldn’t deserve a second look.

They could well have been some mica stones or broken crystal glass pieces. I don’t know what I was expecting but it certainly was a let down to what I imagined, I would to see.

I don’t clearly remember, but I think, I probably did not have any serious intentions to buy. I could easily find myself trapped in an illegal purchase racket facing Angolan prison sentence.

I am reminded of the saying “If God wants me to bend, He doesn’t have to put diamonds on the floor”. Over the next few days, at appropriate occasions, I apprised fellow expatriates from 12 odd countries in my Regional HQ about this ordeal and advised them to be careful of such a possibility along with the risks involved.

Some of them had near similar experiences and a few who very ready to take the risk of a prison stint, gave up the idea not just because the price quoted was sufficiently high but also ascertaining the stone’s authenticity was close to impossible. And, there was just no way the seller would give the stone for a few days with the guarantee of refund on return.

Over a period of next few months, in a turn of events, I was able to plan utilisation of my already piled up authorised leave of 8 days for rest & recreation with a few other UN Observers in South Africa, a country very much tainted with processing of Blood diamonds by De Beers consortium.

On the day of departure from my base Luena, the Regional HQ of Eastern Zone for Luanda, the UN Mission HQ from where I was to embark for South Africa, I had 10 surprise visitors – The Russian Helicopter Unit.

Not knowing their intention, my first thoughts were of some big siyappa (complication) that would jinx my travel plan. The entire lot was due for a turnover in a couple of weeks and they wanted me to buy diamond rings for their loved ones at home.

Though Russia is the biggest producer of diamonds, yet all of them put their faith in De Beers.

It remains a mystery on how did they choose me to impose their trust for the transaction. We had not interacted long enough earlier in a non-professional environment to develop that kind of rapport.

Yes, a few odd times, I may have shared a few stories of pretty devushkas during my stay in erstwhile Russia in the Gorbachev era when USSR was, one – all and mighty, Russian Federation of States.

And, yes, that too with a smattering of my rudimentary knowledge of NDA – distinction earned Roossky language. But, that was purely with the intent to break the ice so that we are comfortable with each other whenever we would be on a joint patrol/ investigative mission.

So, this buying diamond rings for all of them was one helluva risky undertaking, full of dangerous turns and handicaps. How to determine the ring sizes? How to determine value in advance for each individual’s purchase? What sort of designs were required / would be appreciated?

Since the total money with me was going to be high with so many of them interested, what if the money was lost during transit? And, what if the diamond rings were lost after purchase? To my surprise, these queries were resolved easily.

Firstly, sizes were agreed upon to be purchased such that 50% should fit my ring finger and the other 50%, my little finger.

Limit for purchase value was determined equivalent to what I would generally buy for myself.

Designs were left to my discretion. And lastly, they indemnified me against any losses, prior to or after the purchase.

This attitude of theirs reminded me of William Arthur’s lines “The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing and is nothing.”

More I think of it, more I tend to believe that soldiers are inherently uncomplicated, simple and undemanding at heart ready to challenge themselves than settle for mediocrity.

After all, it is only this breed which doesn’t question why it should be doing what it is doing.

Johannesburg, the city of Gold, was to be my entry and exit city in South Africa. It continues to be the epicentre of mineral wealth, gold and diamond trade.

My purchases needed to be done at the last possible moment to avoid lugging them around. I did not envisage a custom regulatory check issue while bringing the rings from South Africa to Angola since travel was on a diplomatic passport and that too on a scheduled UN aircraft flight.

Of course, later only on my final return did I get to know that, if I had declared the precious possessions, we were entitled to a substantial VAT refund at 7 – 12 % on purchases made in South Africa.

During 1990s and 2000s, crime was rampant, Joburg had been famous for its lawlessness and organised crime. It’s well known for its muggings and robbing of tourists in daylight even today.

For event free purchases, I had to be extra vigilant, surely there would be some goons on the look-out for people visiting jewellery stores. I planned to visit a number of stores and select the requisite number of rings from each of them.

This was with the view to keeping not only my options open but also not give a clear idea from where I wished to make final purchase, to any one covertly following up on my activity.

Hence, on the penultimate day, I went around selecting and requested all the stores I visited to keep the items available for tomorrow when I would bring the money and complete the transactions.

Most of them needed a just an hour or 2 for correcting the sizes in any case. Finally, I decided to buy from the store which was close to a bus station.

Thereafter, I had myself followed discreetly by one of my colleagues, to observe if there was any miscreant following me.

Once satisfied, we spent a few more hours on other R&R activities and soon returned for the purchase. After completing the transaction, we quickly boarded the bus, got down after a few stops, crossed the street and changed our mode of travel a couple of times to shake off in case we were still being followed and returned to our hotel.

To cap it all, with a sigh of relief and happiness my holiday went off well, I was able to spend quality vacation time in Pretoria, Joburg, Cape Town and Bloemfontein.

My Russian tovarisch/comrades were more than happy to receive their much-awaited diamond rings, an expression of beauty, elegance and sophistication.

I soon became a much sought after person to unravel the meaning behind clarity, cut, colour and carat characteristics of a diamond.

Frankly, its only academic and can’t be put to ant practical use even today. And now, every time my eye catches the sparkle of the solitaire sitting pretty on my wife’s finger, it gently reminds me of the lore of diamonds of Angola.