The Sketch: Sparkling profits of a dark and dirty conflict

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The Independent Online

Mercenaries and diplomats, soldiers and journalists, politicians and hookers – they all came to Paddy's Bar. Some of the most powerful among the clientele were the diamond dealers whose profits had grown hugely as Sierra Leone suffered, a land torn apart by slaughter, rape and ritualised mutilations.

We journalists would arrive back in Freetown, from reporting on this most vicious of wars in which, as well as the human misery, we witnessed the systematic stripping of diamond mines that should have been the source of great wealth, but had instead become a curse.

Almost every armed group was guilty. But the biggest theft, on an industrial scale, was being carried out by the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) and a sizeable portion of its loot was going in tribute across the border into Liberia and its sponsor, President Charles Taylor.

Brigadier David Richards – now General Sir David Richards, head of the British military – used to drop in to Paddy's with members of his staff. It was a good place to pick up information; that, at least, was his excuse.

Rumours swirled as the beer flowed; and the Lebanese gem merchants were often the prime source. In between illicit negotiations with militia commanders and Nigerian officers they would whisper how the diamond trade was funding conflicts in the Middle East; that Charles Taylor was using proceeds from diamonds to import arms through Viktor Bout the Russian arms dealer – now serving a 25-year sentence in the US.

Paddy's and the Aberdeen peninsula where it was located were insulated by the presence of British troops from what was going on in the rest of the country.

We left the bar one afternoon for a journey to Mahera after hearing that a group of child soldiers had arrived there after a three-day trek to escape their RUF bosses.

There we found a dark canvas of the war; boys forced into becoming killers at the age of 10, girls of the same age who had been used as sex slaves; children with limbs chopped off – this was Charles Taylor's gift to Sierra Leone.