When the siren begins to wail, those who live closest to the mine start packing up their belongings. Armed guards keep watch, ensuring that they leave their homes quickly; there's only one hour until the explosions begin.
Twice a week for the past 12 years, Octea Limited's kimberlite diamond mine in Sierra Leone has forced nearby residents from their homes as it blasts away earth in search of stones destined for Tiffany & Co. and other international diamond outlets.
The Kallon household is one of approximately 700 in Koidu Town that have yet to be relocated at least 500 meters — about 1,600 feet — away from the blasting; that's the minimum distance considered safe from flying debris. Whenever residents hear the siren, they must stop what they're doing, walk up to half a mile to the nearest safety checkpoint, and wait for Octea's security personnel to give them the go-ahead to return. Some days that can take up to three hours.
"We should have been resettled by now," Amanita Kallon says while reluctantly putting away the charcoal stove with which she had just started cooking pastries, "but instead they just move us around like cows."
The siren continues for almost two hours before a tremor shakes the ground and the siren cuts out. Some of Kallon's neighbors start returning home from the checkpoint, but others choose to wait, saying the dust and carbon monoxide created by the explosives make it too difficult to breathe in the immediate aftermath. Nearby houses are gradually crumbling from the vibrations, as are many of the buildings throughout Sierra Leone's fifth-largest city.
Koidu Town residents are escorted from their homes by armed guards before a mine blast. (Photo by Cooper Inveen/VICE News)
The Octea kimberlite diamond mine sits on the northeastern edge of Koidu Town, the capital of Sierra Leone's diamond-rich Kono district. The project began in 2003 as a joint venture between Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz of BSG Resources (BSGR) and Branch Energy, the investment arm of a South-African mercenary group that fought to wrestle the town from rebel control during Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002. The rebel insurgency was largely funded by diamonds unearthed by enslaved Kono residents, and much of the community continues to live in the ruins created by that conflict despite hopes that legitimate mining would be a catalyst for sustainable development.
Initially seen as an opportunity to reopen the country for business while providing much-needed relief to ravaged Kono, government representatives, civil society groups, and development partners say the mine's benefits have fallen significantly short of expectations. Octea has repeatedly failed to meet its financial and development commitments, and all attempts to hold the company accountable, including two protests in 2007 and 2012 that left four people dead, have been stymied by regulating agencies. Many Koidu residents told VICE News that without a shift in Octea's community engagement strategy, frustration may soon once again reach a boiling point.
"This is a community that has existed long before the mine, and they are suffering at the hands of someone else's business," said Arthur Kargbo, director of the Kono-based civil society group Action for Social Justice and Development. "Octea never invites the public to meetings, and no one ever knows what's going on. They are aware that Sierra Leone is a fragile state, a post-conflict country, and as long as they continue to be insincere, there will always be that potential to slide back towards war."
Last October, more than 50 of Octea's local employees were fired for participating in a one-day sit-down strike over the company's refusal to compensate work-related injuries. Workers threatened the company with a "rampage" on multiple occasions before Sierra Leone's Ministry of Labor organized a financial settlement at the beginning of February, but many of the fired workers feel that has only delayed the inevitable.
Gravel waste from the mine looms over Koidu Town. (Photo by Cooper Inveen/VICE News)
"This was one of the reasons for all the suffering at the beginning of the war in 1991," said Alusine Kamara, who was fired for striking after four years as a machine operator at Octea. "If those with power are abusing me and my countrymen, if I can't think about my future, what am I supposed to do? Even now, just speaking these words, I feel like a rebel…. If someone came to me now and said, 'Here, I will give you something to do to get those guys back,' I would do it."
The community is represented in its dealings with the mine by Paul N. Saquee, a paramount chief — a position of authority once bestowed on locals by colonial powers to act on their behalf in communities — who sits as a non-executive member of Octea's board of directors while collecting 15 percent of the company's annual surface rent payments for himself (it's all legal). He told VICE News that worker anger stems from the town's low literacy rate, and said his desire to request development support has recently been complicated by the Koidu City Council, which is suing Octea for having never paid property taxes.
"I don't want to be put in a funny position," Saquee said. "How do you expect me to go talk with a company you've dragged to court? You can't expect me to do that."
Sahr Emerson Lamina, Koidu's mayor who's spearheading the lawsuit, has butted heads with the company since he was elected in January 2014. In his office, which has cracks running along the walls that he attributes to the mine's frequent blasting, he says the lawsuit is about more than just property taxes.
"Every mining company in the country is supposed to honor a development fund for their primary host community," Lamina said. "They have to set up committees with the local council to monitor how those funds are distributed and guarantee community involvement in the decision-making process. But they have not honored any of these obligations at all."
Lamina was the target of an assassination attempt on February 16, when three men with knives chased him to his vehicle after an interview with the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Channel about lawsuit. Then on February 27, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma suspended Lamina of his authority pending the completion of an audit of the council's finances, although no specific charges were made against the mayor.
Koidu mayor Sahr Emerson Lamina. (Photo by Cooper Inveen/VICE News)
The unprecedented move came one week before the country's High Court was expected to deliver a ruling in the lawsuit, which has since been postponed. Lamina believes both events are a part of a coordinated effort to get him out of the way while the lawsuit is "swept under the rug."
Proceedings began on January 21, the latest in a string of financial setbacks for Octea. Despite claims of record profits in 2012 and an aborted $2.2 billion debut on the Hong Kong stock exchange the same year — investment never materialized — Octea has defaulted on a $92 million loan from its bank Standard Chartered and a $44 million loan from Tiffany's, which has a contract for 60 percent of Octea's diamonds. Mohamed Bangura, the corporate affairs manager at Sierra Leone's National Revenue Authority, said that Octea has historically been "partially compliant" with its national tax obligations.
A plan outlining Octea's development intentions was designed in 2012, but most of its proposals were never implemented. A monthly educational magazine never began distribution and a promise to regularly maintain all feeder roads within five kilometers — about three miles — of the mining concession, many of which are in disrepair, was never fulfilled. Committees to monitor and distribute development funds, which the 2009 Mines and Minerals Act requires, were never established either.
'Our profits are our first priority,' the mine representative said.
Octea's website says the company invested $600,000 in community development in 2014 and points to the resettlement neighborhood for those who needed to be moved outside the blast zone as its primary contribution to Koidu's well-being. Drinking water is now accessed at various outdoor faucets rather than community wells, busses were donated to relocated schools, and a free clinic was built on site that the company claims to actively maintain. How beneficial these contributions have been, however, is contested by activists.
"The relocation, you can't call that development," said Joseph Namiba, director of the civil society group Network Movement for Justice and Development. "Just getting some of them from the mining communities to where they are has taken over 10 years because they originally built the new structures out of mud bricks. We thought that after so many years the roads would be repaired or reconstructed, there would be better schools and hospitals built by Octea, better medical facilities for the people. But none of this has happened, as far as I'm concerned."
The Koidu Community Health Center did open in 2011 in a ceremony led by Tiffany's vice president Andrew Hart half a mile from the mine's front gate. Octea initially provided furniture, two ceiling fans, filing cabinets, a refrigerator, and a generator, but the facility's staff say they've largely been on their own ever since.
"The only contact we ever have with them is the about the generator, which they're supposed to fill with fuel once a week," said Agnes Ansumana, one of the health center's senior staff. "They are very slow to respond when we have problems or fuel shortages though. The whole of the holiday season we did not have electricity because a thief stole the battery and we couldn't get a hold of [Octea]."
The gravestone of Sarh Momoh, one of two people killed by police during a protest against Octea in 2007. (Photo by Cooper Inveen/VICE News)
The fans and refrigerator have been broken since late 2014, which staff say Octea won't replace. Medications that require refrigeration are now kept at the government hospital on the other side of town, and immunizations are available only once a week. Medicine is provided by the Sierra Leone government, and a UKAid-led measure to provide plumbing to the facility is currently underway with no assistance from Octea.
One promise the company has made good on is the delivery of university scholarships to community youths — 25 scholarships over the course of 2014 amounting to more than $10,000, according to Octea's website. One of those scholarships was given to Steven Kamara, and although he says he is appreciative of the opportunity to further his studies, he understands the animosity toward Octea within the community.
"We were expecting the company to really develop this land, but nothing like that we have seen," he said. "The resources are not affecting the citizens here and the community is still devastated [from the war]. Lots of people, even the workers, are disgruntled…. When you just push, push, push somebody, one day they will rise up. And that is the fear we have now, because we don't know what will happen."
Tensions first boiled over in 2007 when community members gathered to protest the slow relocation process and poor working conditions. Two people were shot dead and a dozen more injured by police assigned to the mine; they fired upon protesters from a company vehicle. Protests again led to two deaths in 2012; that time, a 12-year-old boy was one of the people killed by police.
In the face of local and international pressure, Octea's operations were suspended for a year following the 2007 protests. The company used the time off to secure more than 370 acres of additional land for a future underground mining project, and Steinmetz bought Branch Energy out of their remaining shares.
Alusine Kamara (left) and his brother Ibrahim Kamara (right) were among 50 Octea employees fired in October for participating in a one-day sit-down strike. (Photo by Cooper Inveen/VICE News)
Sierra Leone's extractives industry is regulated by two bodies, the National Minerals Agency (NMA) and the Ministry of Mines and Mineral Resources. A 2013 World Bank report says competition between the two agencies hampers their effectiveness and that a tendency to shift responsibilities away from themselves and toward the other agency is putting the two bodies on a "collision course." The NMA denied several VICE News interview requests, saying responsibility for Octea falls with the ministry.
Officials at the ministry denied or ignored all requests for comment.
Requests for comment from Octea were repeatedly denied as well; company officials cited an Octea policy to not speak with journalists. Octea general manager Christo Swenepoel initially agreed to an interview, but she was ultimately advised by company office manager Rachael White not to answer any questions. White said that to respond would conflict with the company's business interests and that "our profits are our first priority."
The one thing Swenepoel and White did say is that the company plans to keep operating the mine for the long run, despite financial constraints and mounting tensions with local residents that are increasingly stoking fears of a repeat of the violence in 2007 and 2012.
"We are sitting on a time bomb here and everyone can feel it," said Kai Moibah, a lifelong resident of Koidu. "Whatever spark comes from this company will burn the entire district, that I promise you."
Follow Cooper Inveen on Twitter: @cinveen