Saturday, 20 December 2008


Congo's Blood Diamonds: Fact, Fiction in Washington

WASHINGTON-Famous television journalist Valerie Grey went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to cover the seemingly endless and bloody war that's being waged between rival Congolese factions. What she found was a multibillion-dollar diamond smuggling scheme that began with slave labor, was orchestrated by both a famous American televangelist and the Congo's controversial dictator and blazed a trail of corruption all the way to the White House.
Throw in a saucy love triangle, and this enticing tale of suspense and romance sounds like a great premise for a fictional thriller. After all, a conspiracy of this magnitude couldn't possibly be true-And that's because it isn't, at least not completely.Westchester County author Dave Donelson, who offered the narrative in his third book, the recently released "Heart of Diamonds," admits that his work is fiction, but it certainly contains carats of truth.Those interested in learning exactly how true or not the story is can ask Mr. Donelson directly at a reading and discussion next week at the Gunn Memorial Library."This war has been going off and on for 15 years, but it's really heated up in the past couple of months. And the parties are fighting over the same thing as always-mineral wealth," said Mr. Donelson about the African conflict. "In [the book], a television reporter goes to cover this war and discovers a diamond smuggling scheme meant to avoid paying ... the Congo government. As bizarre as it may sound, even though the book is fiction, it is based on some actual events."It seems that the book finds itself jumping between literary invention, reality and that opaque area in between the two. Fiction: Though some resemblances are uncanny, all the characters, even the politicians, are made up. So is the love triangle, which finds the main character caught between conflicting feelings for companion David Powell, the colleague who helped shape her career, and Dr. Jaime Talon, who runs a struggling clinic near the diamond mine she has discovered.Truth: The backdrop for the story, the Second Congo War, has seen nearly six million people killed in the past 10 years. It is officially the bloodiest war the world has witnessed since World War II. The diamond mines in the book, ones which have too many Africans employed at the end of a gun, do exist. In modern vernacular, the product they generate is known as "blood diamonds."Curiosity: The book's televangelist, Gary Peterson, befriends the Congo's illusory dictator, Moishe Messime, and the two become business partners in a large-scale mining operation. When a rebel faction threatens the operation, the reverend uses his powerful political connections to send American troops into the country under the guise of a humanitarian effort. In the mid-1990s, famed televangelist Pat Robertson received a 50,000-acre diamond mine from the now-deceased Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. In return, Mr. Robertson pushed, though unsuccessfully, for American military support and political asylum for Mobutu. Though questions about his dealings, and so-called humanitarian efforts, in Africa have been raised, there is no evidence Mr. Robertson was ever involved in a blood diamond smuggling scheme. Mr. Donelson, a writer and entrepreneur, has been working on "Heart of Diamonds" for about five years. The inspiration came to him after first reading of atrocities in the Congo in a 1995 Time magazine article. Since then, he has twice visited the Congo's surrounding region, though for safety reasons, never ventured into the actual country."We went to Zambia, which is to the south of the Congo, and by that time the war was at its peak, so I was not permitted to visit the Congo. Nor would my wife let me," commented Mr. Donelson. "As the manuscript wrapped up, we went to Uganda, right over the eastern border of the Congo. There were thousands of refugees there, and that's where the fighting is going on." The eastern section of the Congo is arguably the most lawless region of the planet. Ever since the country's liberation from Belgium some 50 years ago, it has been mired in political corruption and social upheaval. Dozens of rival tribes harbor ethnically-charged resentment toward each other that dates so far back it is fit for a Shakespearian tragedy. If battles are waged over anything tangible, such as minerals, all the money earned typically winds up in a Swiss bank account, as opposed to the revenue side of a federal budget. This unchecked greed leaves basically no funds for medicine, education or infrastructure. In land area, the Congo is about the size of Western Europe, yet it only has about 2,500 miles of roads. Malnutrition and disease are rampant. Children carry semi-automatic weapons like T-ball bats. And it's almost unheard of for a woman to make it through life without experiencing some degree of sexual assault. All of this, according to observers, raises an interesting policy question: Given the level of these atrocities, why hasn't the United States, or any other country, intervened? Though Saddam Hussein was an indisputably vicious man who gassed scores of Kurdish Iraqis, he kept Iraq relatively stable and, at least by Middle Eastern standards, Westernized. Millions of Congolese, meanwhile, live daily in unspeakably horrific conditions yet have seen almost no American presence. "We don't have a dog in this fight," said Mr. Donelson of the current political climate. In other words, despite all that there is to gain from implementing stability and building good relations with a country so rich in natural resources, the U.S. lacks a vested interest in the Congo. "The U.S. doesn't have a good record of world policing. The battle cry, 'We will never let Rwanda happen again' has proved largely untrue," said Mr. Donelson, referring to the massive Rwandan ethnic genocide of 1994. "But the U.N. hasn't done anything either. U.N. mandates protect the civilians, but it won't stop the fighting."But not all hope is lost. Mr. Donelson sees better days ahead for the Congo, just not anytime soon. Away from the eastern portion, the rest of the country is in the midst of slowly rebuilding. And a central government is on its way. Two years ago, a new president, Joseph Kabila, was voted in, and next year the country will vote for a new parliament and a more efficient system of checks-and-balances. "As dark as it is, steps are being taken. It's going to be a long struggle," said Mr. Donelson, who said he would take "Heart of Diamonds" off shelves if it meant peace in the African nation. "But I'm optimistic the Congo can be a leader of the continent."The library program, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 9, is free and open to the public. A book-signing will follow the discussion.