Going for the gold

Former refugee from Liberia trying to make a life here as chief negotiator in diamond business.

george (photo credit: Dan Izenberg)
(photo credit: Dan Izenberg)
During the day, George Sackor cleans houses for a living. In the evening, he miraculously turns into George Sackor, chief negotiator for the Gold and Diamond Brokers Association of Liberia. Dressed in a dark blue suit, white shirt and tie, Sackor, 35, certainly looks the part of a would-be international broker between Liberian and Israeli companies bent on mining Liberia's abundant diamond resources in partnerships required by Liberian law. Life was not always as promising for Sackor as it is these days. Six years ago, his family was killed by hostile tribesmen during the chaos of the Liberian civil war. Sackor's family belongs to the Mandingo tribe, the smallest, and apparently most hated, of the 16 tribes that make up Liberia. According to Ari Syrquin, a lawyer who has been helping the small community of Liberians who fled their homeland and crossed the Sinai desert over the past 18 years, the Mandingo tribe is hated because it has members in other countries and is therefore considered a foreign entity. Sackor said his family was killed by members of the Gio and Mano tribes. His father was a well-to-do farmer and businessman. The family lived in a large house which apparently caught the jealous eye of other tribesmen. After the massacre, Sackor lived with relatives who looked after him. But five years ago, he left his village in Bond County in central Liberia and headed for Monrovia, the capital. From there, he sailed to Egypt and continued across the Sinai to Israel, where he automatically became a protected person. During the civil strife in Liberia which began in 1989, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees declared the country "unsafe." Its international representatives asked their host countries to grant temporary protected status to any Liberian nationals residing in the country. Israel gave its consent with regard to Liberia and, over the years, five other African countries. Along with the status of a protected person, Sackor was given a work permit and letter from the UNHCR attesting to the fact that he was legally resident in Israel. In 2004, the civil war in Liberia ended with the overthrow of Charles Taylor. A UN peacekeeping force of 15,000 troops was sent in to restore order and enable a democratic government to function. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president in the first democratic vote since the beginning of the civil war 15 years earlier. The restoration of democracy in Liberia had mixed consequences for the Liberian protected communities here and elsewhere. The UNHCR stopped classifying Liberia as unsafe and its international representatives withdrew their requests to grant the Liberians in these countries temporary protection. One month later, in July 2006, Israel ordered the community to leave the country by March 31, 2007. Sackor, like most of the other Liberians, regarded the order as a death sentence. Even if the period of chaos had come to an end, there was still tribal violence, especially in the hinterland. "If I go home, those who seized my parents' house will kill me to prevent me from reclaiming it," he told The Jerusalem Post. As one of the leaders of the small community, Sackor was a key figure in the fight against the eviction order. Syrquin also contributed to the fight by bringing the community's plight to the attention of the public. So far, the community has been successful. Almost a year has passed since the original eviction order and its members are still here. Sackor displayed a letter from Sharon Harel, the local representative of the UNHCR, dated December 16, stating that he continues to enjoy the status of a temporary protected person for at least the next two months. IN THE MEANTIME, however, a potentially dramatic and entirely unexpected turn of events could put an end to Sackor's precarious existence here. Syrquin explained that the Liberian media have taken a great interest in the plight of those Liberians who fled the country during the war. Because of his prominence in the struggle of the community in Israel, Sackor was interviewed in June by Liberian state radio. Back home, an old high-school friend of his, Esiaka Konneh, heard the interview and became aware for the first time that Sackor had not been killed along with the other members of his family. Konneh, vice-president of the Gold and Diamond Brokers Association of Liberia, called Sackor and promptly appointed him the association's official representative in Israel. The Gold and Diamond Brokers Association seeks to establish partnerships between local businessmen and foreign companies interested in extracting the country's diamonds and gold. Liberia lacks the capital and the know-how to exploit these resources on its own. Therefore, it is interested in establishing partnerships with Western businesses. The industry had been in serious trouble during the years of anarchy. Diamond-producing countries are limited in production and obliged to register each diamond in accordance with international rules meant to regulate the trade. According to Syrquin, the UN imposed sanctions on the Liberian diamond trade in 2001 after Taylor was accused of using "blood diamonds" (diamonds mined in violation of the international regulations) to fuel a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. He said illicit diamond trading also financed the internecine fighting in Liberia itself, where 200,000 people were killed between 1989 and 2003. Because of the vital importance of Liberian diamond production to the country's economy, the havoc wreaked upon it during the civil war was one of the first items on President Johnson-Sirleaf's rehabilitation list. On May 7, 2007, she established LEITI, the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. It aim is to achieve transparency and accountability to make sure the diamond trade will keep within international regulations and its profits will benefit the entire population. Syrquin told the Post that the Gold and Diamond Brokers Association was recently granted membership in LEITI, thus establishing its status as an honest group which wants to cooperate with Johnson-Sirleaf's good-government reforms. Therefore, Sackor will be able to assure prospective Israeli companies that he works for a legitimate organization which has been recognized as such by the Liberian government. Sackor's appointment went into effect in December. He has not actually begun to make contacts with Israeli companies yet, but hopes to begin soon with the help of Syrquin, who specializes in international trade. "I'm just getting started," said Sackor. "All Israeli companies are potential customers. If they are interested, I will be happy to speak to them." He also hopes that his new status will persuade the government to grant him a visa and put an end to the anxiety caused by his uncertain future. In the meantime, however, life goes on. He still has to don his work clothes each morning and clean Tel Aviv apartments until late afternoon. The business suit, shirt and tie and the hopes for a better future must wait until evening.