Terrorism fears dull gem's luster

SUN JOURNAL

Tanzanite: Reports that Osama bin Laden gained from its sales have all but ruined those who earn their living off the mines.

March 23, 2002|By Davan Maharaj | Davan Maharaj,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MERERANI, Tanzania - The young miners here are known as wanapollo, Swahili for spacemen. Several times a day, they emerge from half a mile below the earth, their bodies coated in glittering graphite dust.

They are searching for tanzanite, a gem found only under a 5-square-mile patch of scrub near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro.

A few months ago, Mohammed Abubakar supported his mother and eight siblings with money earned from mining the blue-violet stone. But since Sept. 11, reports that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network controlled a chunk of the tanzanite trade have sent the price of the gemstone down about 70 percent, slashing his earnings.

U.S. retailers Tiffany & Co. and Zale Corp. and the QVC television shopping channel, which together sold about 80 percent of the tanzanite, have suspended sales, saying they didn't want to be associated with bin Laden if allegations regarding his links to the stone are true.

Tanzanite had become one of the most popular colored gemstones in the United States, thanks to jewelers who promoted it as less expensive and bluer than sapphire.

"Soon, these stones are going to be as valuable as concrete," Abubakar grumbled to a reporter.

Abubakar's economic pain demonstrates how the U.S. war on terrorism is being felt across the globe - from travelers at international airports to poor miners in Tanzania's hinterlands.

Mererani has become a town filled with recrimination and questions: Did an influential Muslim cleric urge believers to sell stones to people now suspected of links to bin Laden? What role, if any, did a wealthy tanzanite dealer play in funding al-Qaida? And most important, can tanzanite survive the taint of bin Laden?

Tanzanite's links to bin Laden were suspected long before Sept. 11 but drew little attention. During the trial last year of four men accused of bombing the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998, a prosecution witness testified that al-Qaida operatives fattened the terror network's coffers by trading in commodities including animal hides, sugar and tanzanite.

Federal prosecutors alleged that "Tanzanite" was a code name for bin Laden's personal secretary, Wadih el-Hage, who was convicted by a New York federal jury for his role in running bin Laden businesses that were used as fronts for terrorist activities during the mid-1990s.

From Nairobi, el-Hage operated the company Tanzanite King. El-Hage's diary, which FBI agents seized in 1997, detailed how he traveled to London, Los Angeles and San Francisco, marketing the gem to jewelry stores, according to federal sources.

Another key player, according to miners, brokers and industry officials, was Sheik Omar Suleyman. They say that as head of the Taqwa mosque here he urged believers to sell their tanzanite to bin Laden loyalists, who smuggled the gemstones to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Suleyman denied the allegation.

Tanzanian authorities worry that reports about bin Laden's involvement with tanzanite could destroy the livelihood of tens of thousands of mining families.

As the U.S. market for tanzanite is drying up, Mererani, which once resembled a California gold rush town, is slowly becoming a ghost town. Bars have gone quiet. Many people who came here dreaming of expensive cars and luxurious homes are returning to their villages empty-handed.

"It's all because of this bin Laden," Abubakar says. "That man should be caught and killed straightaway."

Patrick Rutabanzibwa, permanent secretary in Tanzania's Ministry of Mines, said the government could account for only about 5 percent of the nearly $400 million in tanzanite exported last year.

"We can't say that no, no, no, al-Qaida has no interest in tanzanite," Rutabanzibwa said from his office in Dar es Salaam. "What we can say is that there is a lot of smuggling of tanzanite, which really means the government doesn't know how it gets out of the country, let alone who is actually involved in it."

Abubakar and other miners said they long for the time before Sept. 11, when all people in Mererani cared about was making money, providing for their families, and having a good time.

Tanzanite transformed Mererani into a significant job center. An estimated 30,000 people from across Tanzania relocated here. As more of the brown ore, which turns blue after being heated, was brought to the surface, mud huts were replaced by brick houses with satellite dishes. Bars and brothels with "New York" and "Hollywood" in their names appeared overnight.

Abubakar heard of the town in his small village outside Arusha, about 80 miles away. He made the two-hour trip and worked out a deal with a mine owner: He would toil for food, a place to sleep in the shacks on the mine premises and a small commission.

To blast a mining tunnel, Abubakar and co-workers, some of whom look no older than 13, stick dynamite in an air pocket, then scamper up a ladder cobbled together from scrap lumber to escape the blast.

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