By Samih Ossaily
Samih Ossaily is the first person to have ever been convicted for smuggling conflict diamonds. During 2001, he was smuggling diamonds from Sierra Leone to Liberia. These diamonds freely entered the market in Antwerp. Samih Ossaily spent 16 months is prison. This material is an exclusive excerpt from his memoirs.
November 3rd: this was the day my life changed forever. I remember it so well. I was sitting home when the phone rang. It was a friend of mine from the States. She sounded a bit worried as she told me was an article about me in a newspaper called the Washington Post. I knew what the Washington Post was but I just couldn’t fathom what they possibly could have written about me. I ran to the newsstand next to my house and I found the newspaper lying there with my name printed in big letters.
I remember the first time I read the article, the author’s name Douglas Farah stuck with me. And words, many words: Al Qaeda… terrorist… blood diamonds… weapons dealer… Everything spinning in my head. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. Why those words? Why next to my name? Why is he calling me a dealer of Osama Bin Laden? Who is Osama bin Laden? I’d heard something about him, but not much.
I folded the newspaper and put it down. I couldn’t finish the article, I couldn’t deal with it. I left it there, ignored it. But the whole world was taken by it. In few days, all the main newspapers were taking about how the diamond trade funded 9/11. They were talking about the guy who provided Bin Laden with diamonds. They were talking about me. They were all wrong.
A few weeks later, my father was diagnosed with cancer. Time was running out and he wanted to return to Lebanon where he chose to die. I accompanied him on his last journey but I didn’t stay for his funeral. One day before the funeral, my girlfriend called. The police had searched my house and they were looking for me. I couldn’t wait anymore, I wanted this misunderstanding to end. My conscience was clear.
That night I took the first plane from Lebanon to Belgium. As I landed, I saw three investigators waiting for me. Three hours later I was arrested. They said it had to do with weapon dealing, conflict diamonds and terrorism.
They questioned me until eleven o’clock p.m. I asked them to explain what was going on when a secretary showed up with some papers. On each document a different accusation was printed: money laundering, criminal organization, smuggling diamonds, breaking international embargo, terrorism and weapon smuggling. It was then I first realized that this was a big story. I was angry. I was stressed. But I had to be strong. I knew I had to be strong.
I was transported to the jail, which is about one and a half miles from where I was interrogated. Handcuffs, feet cuffs, a belt, cuffs attached to the belt, blindfolded going somewhere, but I didn’t know where. I could hear the sirens of police in front of and in back of the vehicle. I realized we were being escorted. I was quite a big case!
The jail was bad. They undressed me, gave me prison clothes and a blanket. I will never forget it. A blanket, a pair of pants, a pair of underwear and a toilet roll. I was holding them tightly as I walked the jail corridor. I could feel that tears were on the way, but I was thinking, “Just stay strong, stay strong.” Days went by.
After almost ten months I became very ill. The guards found me on the floor unconscious. When I opened my eyes, I saw three doctors who told me I needed to be hospitalized. But there is no hospital in Antwerp prison, only in Bruge.
I was transferred to Bruge, where things were different. Here they put me in a very strict regimen. They were told that I was “the terrorist.” That’s kind of scary. Even for me. If someone tells me, “That person you’re talking to is a terrorist,” I will avoid him. I will be scared. They were scared. I couldn’t make sense of it, why me? People have been smuggling diamonds forever, smuggling diamonds is not a crime, why me?
See more of Samih’s story on this Tuesday’s episode of Explorer, Secret History of Diamonds, April 6 at 10P et/pt.