UN envoy expresses shock at child diamond miners in Sierra Leone

A U.N. envoy watched children working diamond mines in eastern Sierra Leone on Wednesday, expressing shock at the extent of child labor in the mines, The Associated Press reports.

Olara Otunnu, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s envoy for issues involving children and war, spoke at the end of a visit to diamond-rich Kono district, one of the prizes of Sierra Leone’s recently ended 10-year civil war.

“I was horrified to see children mining for diamonds—in this day and age, so many children forced to slave away in diamond mines,” Otunnu reportedly told reporters after his tour. “It was a terrible scene.”

In Sierra Leone, as in other African countries including Congo, boys as young as pre-school age labor in pits, bringing up mud to be sifted for diamonds.

Sierra Leone’s diamonds fueled its civil war, waged by rebels seeking to gain control of the government and the mines. The military forces of Britain, the United and neighboring Guinea broke the rebel movement, and the war was declared over in January 2002.

Otunnu urged micro-credit and other aid programs for the families of the child miners, and help putting the boys into school.

Equally saddening, the U.N. envoy said, were the number of Sierra Leone children with arms and feet hacked off. Children, like adults, were targets of the trademark rebel atrocity of slashing off limbs with machetes.

However, Otunnu overall noted the broad improvements he saw, compared to his last visit 1 1/2 years ago, when families still were emerging from hiding in the bush.

“I saw some children going to school — even though some of them are sitting on rocks and logs — but they are happy, singing, playing and in uniforms,” the envoy said.