Matthew Hart, who has reported on the diamond industry for many publications, recounts a hair-raising trip to Angola's Chicapa River that inspired his second thriller. Photo: David Laurence
Matthew Hart recounts the diamond-studded story that inspired his thriller, “Ice Angel”
The Canadian author, who has reported on diamond mining, meets mercenaries, thugs and prospectors on an unforgettable trip to Angola / BY Matthew Hart / September 3rd, 2021
The diamond world teems with crime, deceit, and stupefying sums. Prospectors, thieves, and billionaire tycoons all prowl the glittering terrain. I found that out as soon as I started reporting on the world’s favourite jewel 25 years ago. So why switch to fiction? To show why, I’ll start with a real story.
I was in Johannesburg in 1995 when I heard about a couple of South Africans who had a diamond barge on the Chicapa River in Angola. Every night they traded machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades with Angolan rebels, who were also suctioning diamonds from the riverbed. People fought over what was there. No wonder. Because one day – this is why people were talking about them – the guys with the barge hoovered up a 24-carat pink.
Here’s what happened: They chartered a Learjet and flew the stone to Johannesburg and sold it for $4.8 million, cash. The buyer flipped it to a New York polisher for $10 million. The New Yorker sawed it in two, polished it into matching pears, and sold it to the Sultan of Brunei’s brother for $20 million.
Now that’s a diamond. Every time it walked through a door it doubled in price. I formed an instant mania for the Chicapa River. I longed to see it. Two years later I got my chance. I flew back to Johannesburg, and on a blustery night, as inky clouds toppled through the sky, I sat down on the terrace of the Hilton for a chat with Simon Mann.
Mann was already famous as a soldier of fortune in the diamond games of southern Africa. He stood out from the usual run of thugs, because he’d been educated at a famous English private school and his wealthy father and grandfather had each captained the England cricket team. An establishment life awaited Mann, but other sirens called him.
He went straight from school into the Scots Guards, and then the SAS, Britain’s crack commandos. From there he moved into that ocean of cash, guns and jets that land without running lights at night in the diamond lands of Africa. He became a mercenary and businessman.
That night at the Hilton we settled down with drinks. Mann was immaculately turned out in a sand-colored safari suit, expensive-looking brown suede chukka boots, and one of those watches that can work at the bottom of the ocean and tells the time on Mars.
He talked about the company he was promoting, DiamondWorks, a small Vancouver firm with mining rights on the Chicapa. The warring parties in Angola’s civil war were in a fragile truce, and Mann’s job was to convince a group of stock-market analysts that if their clients invested in DiamondWorks they would get diamonds, instead of just having their investment shot to pieces. In the morning, Mann was taking them in for a firsthand look.
“Bit of a risk for an investor,” I said to him.
“That area? Pacified,” he replied.
Early the next morning, DiamondWorks’ chartered 737 circled out over the Atlantic and landed at Luanda. Once a ravishing city, the Angolan capital had been reduced to tatters by 20 years of civil war. We taxied past rows of wrecked aircraft. A white pick-up came tearing across the runway. Mann got in and sped away.
In those days, clearing Luanda airport could take hours. To avoid forcible inoculation or “tests” for AIDs, it was wise to fold U.S. dollars into your vaccination document before presenting it. But when Mann returned, we were whisked straight through.
A tall Angolan joined us in the VIP lounge, an affable character in loafers and Docker chinos. He was the governor of Lunda Sul province, and Mann was giving him a lift back to his capital, Saurimo. In return, he supplied the analysts with resolute assurances that the region we would later visit was as peaceful as a hamlet in the shires.
“The people are eager to return to their villages,” he said.
“Which people?” I asked.
“And are they actually returning?”
“They are eager to.”
At Saurimo we transferred to a Russian Mi-6 helicopter and went racketing north across the rolling bushveld, a landscape dotted with villages of straw-topped huts. Soon the brown serpentine of the Chicapa River came into view and we clattered into the DiamondWorks camp.
The place was called Luo, from the name of a stream that joins the Chicapa there. The camp was set among trees and ruled by a slovenly South African. He was recovering from malaria, for which the treatment seemed to be a tumbler of whisky, never out of his sunburnt paw. He took great pride in the feast he’d laid out for us, including prawns flown in from the coast. In the heat, a high smell came off the tables. I stuck with beer.
It was a pretty stretch of river. Trees sagging with white blossoms drooped into the water. DiamondWorks had a barge in the middle of the current, tethered by lines to either bank. Divers descended into the murk and raked through the swirling sediment with suction hoses. Although miners had worked this stretch of the Chicapa for decades, there seemed to be plenty left. A 106-carat white had come out of the river only weeks before, and while we were there they sucked out a stone worth $150,000.
But DiamondWorks had bigger fish to fry. Their geologists had identified a promising diamond target at Yetwene, 95 km away, and we got back on the chopper and went rattling up the sinuous Chicapa for a look.
At Yetwene, crews had cleared a broad swath of riverbank and started to erect a mill. We circled the site for 10 minutes, peering through the open hatch while Mann’s geologist, shouting above the engine noise, poured out statistics about diamond grade and the throughput of the mill.
As we flew back down the Chicapa to Luo, I surveyed the banks. That stretch of river had fed a lot of money into rebel pockets, and there was clear evidence of mining.
“Who’s working the river here?” I bellowed at Mann.
“Nobody!” he bawled. “They’ve been cleared out!”
DiamondWorks opened its Yetwene operation. Six months later a rebel force came out of the bush and stormed the mine. The firefight lasted an hour and five mine staff died. The guerillas took the diamonds, some captives, and vanished back into the bush. I hope the analysts hadn’t taken too sunny a view of DiamondWorks. Its share price flat lined.
I heard no more of Mann until 2004, when he was captured at Harare airport with a planeload of mercenaries. They’d stopped in Zimbabwe to refuel on their way, allegedly, to overthrow the government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. That’s right. They stopped to refuel. A planeload of mercenaries. In Zimbabwe. When Robert Mugabe was president.
Mann spent a few years behind bars, first in Zimbabwe and later in Equatorial Guinea’s infamous Black Beach Prison, before friends managed to bail him out.
At first glance Mann looks like a great character, an upper class, British, mercenary commando in safari suit and desert boots. But really, what can you say about him except that he was, I don’t know, possibly a bit incautious?
I found myself getting impatient. I didn’t want to write about people who got caught in Harare and paraded in shackles for the world press. I wanted a protagonist who leapt from an RAH-66 Comanche stealth helicopter carrying a Sig Sauer MPX Copperhead with a 30-round clip. He would need a lover too – a Russian diamond thief known as Slav Lily. So that’s a tall order. Luckily I knew where to fill it. Fiction.
I’m not making this up.
Matthew Hart has reported on diamonds for Vanity Fair, the London Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other magazines and newspapers. He was a correspondent for the New York trade magazine Rapaport Diamond Report. His second thriller, Ice Angel, comes out Sept. 7.