Red Hand Day is meant to bring us together and collectively demand an end to enslaving children to fight as soldiers. Read that again slowly, “demand an end to enslaving children to fight as soldiers”. It’s hard to process that this should have to be something that we demand but it’s a heartbreaking reality, even in 2020. I’ve worked with many reformed child soldiers over the years and trust me when I say the stories they share are terrifying. No adult should endure this type of violence and anguish, let alone an innocent child. The first project I created through MiaDonna’s foundation, The Greener Diamond, was because a former child soldier asked me for help. It was early in the development stage of MiaDonna and The Greener Diamond and I was learning more and more about conflict diamonds and gold. I had been making calls and researching opportunities on how we could best empower the people being negatively affected by the earth-mined diamond industry. It was through one of these connections that I met Chief Konodia from the Kono District of Sierra Leone.
I have spent a lot of time in West Africa, sitting and talking to the locals so I can truly understand their needs and traditions. I quickly found out that this region will always be on the brink of civil war as the battle for the wealth in their soil rages on. But the Kono District faces even more turmoil because this area is so incredibly abundant in diamonds, gold, tin, and coltan, there is constant conflict as various groups try to possess the land and the wealth that comes with it. Chief Kondia’s story illustrated this greed.
I listened in astonishment as he told me his story. When the chief was around 9 years old, rebels came to his village and stole the children to be used as their soldiers. He was made to look on as both his parents were killed and the village burnt to the ground. He told me stories of the beatings they endured and the unimaginable crimes he was forced to do. It’s hard to imagine Konodia as a soldier, for sitting with me, he seemed like a very quiet and gentle person, but he explained that cocaine and other drugs were mixed into their food to enable them to carry out these horrible acts.
During this time, he was stolen over and over again by different rebel groups and forced to fight. After many years (he’s not sure of the exact timeframe), Konodia and his best friend were freed by the U.N.
Konodia turned to diamond mining as a means to survive once he had his freedom. However, he quickly learned that diamonds only represented further oppression and conflict, as now he was enslaved by the mining companies. It’s then that he decided to return to his village and claim his place as Chief. He knew he had to help his people find a sustainable way to live outside of mining and relying on aid. They had 100 acres of prime farmland, but lacked the information on how to implement and maintain a farm. It’s hard to imagine, but during times of conflict, it can actually be illegal to grow food because the land is more valuable for mining. So, over the years, the knowledge of how to farm gets lost. Knowing he had to help his people, Konodia and his best friend set out on the 250-mile journey to Freetown on foot, to find someone who could help. That is where he met my contact and our paths crossed.
A few days after our initial call, I received an email with profiles of some of the people who would be trained at the farm, and who were desperate for someone to empower them. My heart broke a million times over as I read horrifying account after account of what these young people go through on a daily basis. Their stories were similar to Chief Konodia’s; stolen as children, watched their parents being murdered, found themselves abandoned and alone, scared with no way to survive. I knew this had to be our first project.
I agreed to give him and his village the money for tools and education so they could rebuild through agriculture and become sustainable. In order to keep my promise, I would sell lab-grown diamonds and conflict-free fine jewelry and use a portion of the profits to fund our foundation.
I’m happy to report that this farm has now trained more than 500 reformed child soldiers and will continue to train even more.
I am thankful for all the #MiaDonnaHeroes who enable us to bring hope and options to the people of diamond mining communities and the young adults who were forced to fight as child soldiers. I urge you to continue to be conscious consumers who educate yourselves on the products you purchase, as the origin truly does matter. Together, we will continue to fight to end the abuse of these innocent people.