The vast Chiadzwa diamond fields, about 90km southwest of Zimbabwe's eastern city of Mutare, have come to resemble a military garrison since soldiers evicted scores of illegal miners.
President Robert Mugabe's government sent troops into the area in late 2008 to flush out the diamond miners, after repeated attempts by the police over the past two years had failed.
The miners have left, but the soldiers remain, their tents dotting a moonscape of pits, and the search for diamonds has not ceased.
"These soldiers who were deployed to remove the makorokoza [illegal miners] are now looting the diamonds, but they are doing so in such a way that it is difficult for outsiders to notice it," a resident of Marange village, where the mine is situated, told IRIN.
|These soldiers who were deployed to remove the makorokoza [illegal miners] are now looting the diamonds|
"They have a duty roster of villagers from Marange, who are supposed to report to them early in the morning to dig for the diamonds from Chiadzwa," said the villager, who identified himself only as Simon.
"When we get to the diamond field, we are always reminded that if anyone asks what we are doing there, we should tell that person that we are filling the pits that were left by the makorokoza," Simon said.
The villagers are forced to dig for diamonds in the numerous existing pits and also to excavate new ones. "We are too scared to report this form of forced labour because the soldiers who are camped at Chiadzwa have warned us that top army officers are involved and if we leak the information, soldiers will be sent to beat us up."
The forced labour lasts from dawn to dusk, so Simon cannot tend his fields. "We experienced famine and untold hunger last year [when the harvest failed in the 2007/08 season]. The rains are better this year [2008/09], but some people have decided to turn us into cheap labour for their own gain," he said.
After the day's work, the soldiers search the villagers to ensure that they do not have any hidden diamonds.
Bright Tigere, 24, a Mutare resident originally from Marange village, voluntarily offered his services. "I heard that the soldiers were forcing people to pan for the diamonds and decided to return to my village so that I would be one of the people participating," he told IRIN.
"Once in a while the soldiers give us some diamonds to bribe us and I am selling them for my upkeep," said Tigere, whose livelihood had depended on working in the diamond fields before he was evicted.
The fruits of diamond mining had afforded him a luxurious lifestyle and he used to cross regularly to Musina, a large town in neighbouring South Africa, to sell the diamonds and go shopping.
But the effects of the military crackdown on diamond mining in Mutare, which had helped the city weather Zimbabwe's economic malaise, are seeing it sink back into the poverty that has become the norm for almost all Zimbabweans.
The expensive cars of diamond dealers that once teemed in Mutare's streets have disappeared, shops have become deserted and there are few currency dealers.
|It was from rags to riches and back to rags again, and that is painful. That is why I am more than ready to return and be used by the soldiers because, at least, I am guaranteed food on the table|
"It was from rags to riches and back to rags again, and that is painful. That is why I am more than ready to return and be used by the soldiers because, at least, I am guaranteed food on the table," Tigere said.
The soldiers, easily identified in the shebeens and taverns by their uniforms and the assault rifles slung across their backs, see their tour of duty in the diamond fields as a privilege.
"I am happy to be among the soldiers who were chosen to come here to Chiadzwa even though, initially, I resented the assignment because we were not given a chance to even say goodbye to our families," one soldier, who declined to be identified, told IRIN at a shopping centre.
"As a soldier, just like most people in this country, I am poorly paid and my salary can hardly see me through three days of a month. When I get a chance to loot, I grab it without hesitation. I am sick and tired of the top guys being the only ones with all the riches, even though it's us who do the dirty work," he said.
The soldier said he frequently applied for leave and would go to the capital, Harare, to sell the diamonds. "Our superiors back in the barracks are fully aware of what we are doing, and they let us continue because they benefit from this illegal mining of the diamonds," he said. "Every week, we surrender a substantial amount of the mineral to them."
One of his commanders, he said, had good connections with dealers in India and often travelled to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, to meet with middlemen. "Word coming from Harare is that it is easy to sell the diamonds in India, where they are polished and used in making ornaments."
There have been reports that Chiadzwa's diamonds have also turned up in Lebanon, Russia and South Africa.
A Bulawayo-based economist, Erich Bloch, said the alleged involvement of soldiers in Chiadzwa would increase the chances of the country being struck off the Kimberley Process register of diamond exporting countries.
The Kimberley Process is an international certification scheme designed to prevent diamonds mined in conflict areas from entering the multibillion-dollar market.
"If the troops are actually looting the diamonds, and given the adverse reports of their presence at Chiadzwa, Zimbabwe could soon be blacklisted by Kimberly Process," Bloch told IRIN.
|Soldiers have no business at a diamond field.
The government should just act quickly to ensure that a reputable company moves in to do the mining
In late 2008, international civil society, led by Global Witness, a non-governmental organisation that orchestrated the campaign to set up the Kimberley Process, began lobbying for an urgent inquiry into Zimbabwe's diamond industry.
"Soldiers have no business at a diamond field. The government should just act quickly to ensure that a reputable company moves in to do the mining," a Harare-based economic consultant, John Robertson, told IRIN.
"It is reasonable to suspect that the government is using the illicit mining of diamonds to fund an already disgruntled army," he said. "It is highly possible that government officials are fattening their pockets using the Chiadzwa diamonds."