SEMBEHUN 17, Sierra Leone — He gives his name as Rambo, but he is barely 18 and not at all interested in fighting. He stands knee-deep in brown muck, digging like a madman. He hopes to strike it rich.
"Diamonds," Rambo said, not missing a beat with his shovel. "I look for diamonds."
The day started at 7 a.m. and will end after dark. Men and teenage boys work the moonscape beside the main road here just south of Bo, the capital of Southern province. It is hard labor in its rawest form: sweltering heat, mosquitoes, a jug of water for sustenance--and mostly meager returns.
"We haven't found anything this month," said Lahai Sowai, who holds the government permit to run the family-based operation. "If we get nothing, they [the workers] get paid nothing."
Sierra Leone is being ripped apart because of diamonds. The Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, the leading rebel group, controls the country's richest diamond areas, east of here. The rebels recently jettisoned a 10-month-old peace accord in large part because they feared losing mining interests, which have netted them hundreds of millions of dollars since the early 1990s.
But for most Sierra Leoneans, the allure of diamonds is as distant as is Rambo from his Hollywood namesake. Sowai has dozens of mining sites in a 15-mile radius of here, but his family must raise food to get by. Two of his 10 children, one dressed in nothing but a pair of underwear, are among the 25 or so laborers desperately clawing the earth, some with their bare hands.
"For a long time, we couldn't even work because the highway was too dangerous," said Sowai, 53, who runs his business from a two-door Toyota compact car. "We were just living here in the bush and farming."
Seventeen miles north in Bo, more than 8,000 refugees are crammed into a temporary camp called Splendid. They fled the Kono district, the RUF's diamond capital to the northeast, because of on-and-off fighting in recent years.
They could have returned home after the July peace agreement, which ended an eight-year civil war, but most of them did not believe that the RUF would disarm as required by the accord. Their suspicions may have saved their lives. The latest hostilities started early this month when RUF soldiers stormed a weapons decommissioning center run by United Nations peacekeepers.
Korieyo Lamin, a young mother who arrived here 18 months ago, said the Kono refugees have no hope of profiting from their hometown's natural wealth so long as the RUF remains there. The diamond areas, she said, are strictly reserved for RUF supporters.
"I am living like this all because of diamonds," Lamin said, surveying a crush of humanity at the camp's food distribution center. "I want the diamonds to come back to the people. I want to go back home and live a normal life again."
On Wednesday, hundreds of Camp Splendid residents stood in line for their monthly handouts of flour, wheat and cooking oil from the U.N. World Food Program. The assistance is supposed to end this summer, but renewed fighting between the RUF and government forces is forcing the agency to reconsider.
Aya Shneerson, program officer in the national capital, Freetown, said about 100,000 displaced people are getting food assistance in Sierra Leone, including 25,000 made homeless in the last month. Because of the fighting, the agency has been unable to reach 34,000 of the 84,000 farm families it had hoped to assist with food and seed during the current planting season.
"This is the time they should be planting so they can sustain themselves later in the year," Shneerson said. "But now more farmers are being displaced, and others are afraid to go back home. The situation is getting worse."
Richard Fillie knows what it means to go hungry. The 25-year-old farmer has been trying to provide for his family at Camp Splendid since November 1998. He has four children, including a 2-year-old, but no wife. She was shot to death by RUF soldiers as she fled their home in Kono with their daughter and three sons.
A friend found the children in the bush and reunited them with Fillie, a small man with heavy eyes and a frozen expression that tells all about his ordeal. He thanks God that his children were spared. But life, he said after much reflection, is not good.
The food aid is not enough, he said, and he needs to provide clothes and other essentials for his family. He works odd jobs at the camp, collecting firewood and building huts. If he is lucky, he brings home $1 a day.
Fillie, like almost everyone stuck at Splendid, can't help but think about the diamonds out there. Even with the long hours and hard labor, he would gladly trade places with Rambo in Sembehun 17. Just one small gem of reasonable quality would be worth more than Fillie earns at Splendid in a year.