By Jeff Koinange
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MBUJI-MAYI, Democratic Republic of the Congo (CNN) -- At a bend in a tributary of the mighty Congo River, dirt-poor villagers feverishly pan for the shiny stones that have proved as elusive as they are rare -- diamonds.
Hundreds stake their claims here hoping to strike it rich in this, the fourth-largest diamond-producing country in the world. Officials say that last year, diamond exports from the Congo grew to $2 billion, nearly one-fifth of the country's gross domestic product.
But what these villagers don't know -- or hardly care about -- is the fact these are some of the precious stones that have, according to experts, indirectly fueled some of Africa's dirtiest wars from Sierra Leone to Liberia and from Angola to Congo. They're known as conflict diamonds or, more bluntly, blood diamonds. And in this corner of the Congo, men and boys constantly mine, hoping to find a way out of poverty.
To get to Congo's diamond district, visitors fly to Mbuji-Mayi at the center of this vast nation, then drive for about 90 minutes on dirt roads until they arrive at Dipumba.
Once a village, the entire landscape is now pockmarked with holes the size of water wells, holes that a man can barely squeeze into.
But squeeze they do, and villagers like 40-year old Jean Pierre Mbenga and his five-man team arrive at daybreak. Their tools are simple -- an old pick, a simple rope, a torn sack. They don't have shoes, gloves, hard hats or flashlights.
Mbenga makes his way down into the tiny well. The mine shafts are deep, dark, cold and very dangerous. The walls are unsecured. Accidents are frequent and many miners have been buried alive in these pits.
Yet Mbenga knows he has to keep digging. He has a wife and eight hungry children at home, including a two-week-old son.
"It's terrible here," he says. "All we do is work from morning to evening and most of the time we come up empty. I can't think of a worse way to make a living."
But many here don't have a choice. Work is hard to come by and many are tired of fighting in the various militias that roam these badlands. These men and boys want to make an honest living.
But to them it just seems that the poor seem poorer than ever.
Mbenga, who's been digging for diamonds for more than two decades, says he once dug up a one-carat stone that he sold for $500.
He thought he had finally struck it rich, but by the time he divided the earnings among his team and paid the man who leased the land where he digs, he had less than $50 left.
"That's the life of a miner here," he says, "We work and work until our hands bleed and all we end up with is peanuts."
I ask Mbenga who buys his diamonds.
"Anyone," he says, "just as long as they have the money."
And that's exactly the problem.
Legitimate diamond sellers and activists have argued to change the system for the past decade. They want to curtail the illicit sale of diamonds to unscrupulous middlemen and, in some cases, militia warlords who use the diamonds in exchange for arms to fuel Africa's endemic civil wars.
It happened in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, where as many as 200,000 people were reportedly killed and many others had their limbs hacked off by rebels determined to take control of the country's rich diamond deposits.
Sierra Leone is the setting for the new movie "Blood Diamond." Leonardo DiCaprio plays a crooked Zimbabwean ex-mercenary who searches for a rare pink diamond. (The film was produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, which like CNN.com is owned by Time Warner.)
It's a movie that should stir controversy about just how careful the precious gem industry has been in making sure diamonds are bought and sold legally.
In the Congo, a country that has seen its fair share of civil wars and where corruption and mismanagement are rife, it's hardly conceivable that diamond sales can be fully monitored, when lawlessness and a frontier mentality are prevalent in cities like Mbuji-Mayi.
Most of Congo's diamonds are exported through a state-run company, but in a country that was overrun by one dictator after another for more than 40 years, experts say that getting diamonds out of the Congo illegally has been an-all-too-common occurrence.
That has fueled war, coups and more war, leaving many Congolese poor and desperate.
On this day, Mbenga finds nothing and on his way home he buys his family the only thing he can -- a tiny loaf of bread. He knows he has to go back down into the shaft first thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
He is determined to find wealth down there no matter the cost, human and otherwise, or how long it takes.
As members of the crew watch, a man brings a basket full of dirt up from a diamond mine near Dipumba, Congo.