Buried alive: Young Liberians risk everything in deadly mines

  • AFP, Dark Forest, Liberia
  • Updated: May 17, 2015 13:43 IST

Peter Kollie was digging for gold in the forests of south-eastern Liberia when the deep shaft he had carved out of the earth collapsed, turning into a dark, airless tomb.

But that was a risk the 20-year-old, like thousands of desperate and impoverished young men working at the illegal gold-mining camps of the border region by Ivory Coast, had been prepared to take.

"In such cases there is nothing we can do. We leave the body there and abandon the area for a while," Lomax Saydee, a fellow miner and youth welfare volunteer, told AFP a few days after Kollie's death.

"After a certain period of time we go back and reopen the place and generally in that case you discover a huge quantity of gold in the area where the person died underground."

"So it is like you are digging your own grave sometimes, because if it closes on you no one can help you."

Kollie had been working in the Dark Forest, in the heart of Grand Gedeh County, where Liberia's unofficial alluvial gold sector is a booming but poorly regulated business.

Boys aged from seven or eight years toil alongside men in their 30s in expansive open pits, digging into narrow shafts which drop as far as 100 metres (330 feet) to gold seams from where ore is lifted to the surface in baskets on ropes.

"Fatalities from tunnel collapses are not uncommon," said a 2012 report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on Liberia.

The miners, mostly Liberians but also former fighters fleeing political violence in Ivory Coast, live under vast encampments of tarpaulin, cooking bush meat on open fires.

Widespread drug abuse

The more remote camps lack basic services and are overcrowded, putting their inhabitants at risk of waterborne infections.

Drug abuse is "widespread", according to the UN panel, which has voiced concern about the "potential threat to border security that these itinerant and disaffected young men pose".

The government says it appraised 416.5 kilogrammes (920 pounds) of gold valued at $16.5 million for export in the first nine months of 2013 although industry sources estimate the real annual production is likely to be closer to 3,000 kilos.

The government sees little of those revenues, about $500,000 in 2013, but it is the miners who really lose out, sometimes making a few dollars in a day and often nothing at all.

Meanwhile, legitimate brokers complain the market has become increasingly dominated by illegal traders and their agents from Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia and Mali.

From the Dark Forest, gold is smuggled by ethnic Mandingo and Fulani traders to Monrovia or into Guinea and Ivory Coast, where it is smelted into bullion and then trafficked into United Arab Emirates.

Jasper Tomapu, 12, sweats profusely as he struggles with a spade which looks much too big for him in a township of some 3,000 miners called Benin, in the heart of the forest.

"I want to go to school but I have no one to pay the fees. My parents are jobless. Since I was born I have not seen a classroom," he says.

Moses Kerkula, who tells AFP he is just eight, says he needs gold "so I can buy some clothes", adding that there is no school in Benin.

Sick of begging

Officials from Liberia and UN agreed in 2012 to suspend all alluvial gold mining in border regions but the decision has never been implemented.

UN says poor infrastructure, remote locations of many mines and under-funding of government personnel has made regulation extremely weak.

Local authorities recognise, in any case, that trade provides a living for a large number of youths who would otherwise be a bigger problem.

Peter Solo, a senior local government official in Grand Gedeh, says stopping the trade would be "counterproductive... when you don't have optional employment for them".

Gold mining, a major source of income for communities on Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone borders, has also begun to lure youngsters from Monrovia.

Sick of begging on the streets, Alvin Doe, an aspiring footballer who believes he is good enough to take up the sport professionally, has come to Benin to earn cash to move abroad.

Doe says there are very good footballers, who have played for top clubs in the Capital, and who have found their way out from the Dark Forest. "We can burst the rock and at least when God blesses you, you get something to find your way out," he says.

"There is no support, no good sporting activities in the country... We are asking God to help us and take us from here."

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