(MENAFN - Arab News) Almost everyone in the small town of gaga in the central african republic is a clandestine gold miner regardless of age or sex but this risky livelihood may get them killed.
swathes of the deeply poor landlocked nation are roamed and sometimes controlled by armed groups who value gold more than they do human life and threaten artisanal mining communities particularly if there are ethnic or religious differences.
at present vigilantes trade in the gold and say they are protecting gaga but the village still reels from attacks late last year when hundreds of people were massacred.
'we quit school to dig for gold... because it brings in a lot of money" 12-year-old dieu beni gueret told afp looking up from a sandy pit by the town 200 kilometers (125 miles) northwest of the capital bangui.
gueret opened his bag to reveal nuggets of the precious metal the envy of every armed group in the region and a few cfa franc notes he proudly called 'the fruit of what we do every day."
other children as well as grown men and women some with babies strapped to their backs were digging away. when the holes are deep enough to fill up with water from a stream a hundred paces distant they carefully sift the sand in hope of finding the pebbles that shine brighter than most.
'we don't have any machine. we work with spades and the younger ones dig deep down in the ground for a month or two before we can scrape in the soil to search" said socrate a man in his 40s who runs the artisanal mining efforts at gaga.
when luck favors the miners who number almost 2000 a single hole can provide up to 20 grams (0.7 ounces) of gold per day socrates added.
'the gold we seek is to improve our quality of life" said daniel aristide dedanga another miner. the car has considerable potential gold reserves as well as diamonds and oil but in decades of misrule or conflict they have barely been developed industrially.
socrate said that 'we've never been able to work well" since seleka rebels seized power in bangui in march 2013 and held sway for 10 months. 'while we're working people come to shoot at us and we're forced to flee into the bush."
forces known as 'anti-balaka" who emerged as vigilante groups to seek vengeance for brutal atrocities against civilians by rogue seleka forces today control gaga and the mine.
the self-styled 'col. cyriaque" who leads the local anti-balaka fighters makes frequent trips between the village and the mine always accompanied by three 'lieutenants."
cyriaque told afp that he is there 'to watch over the laborers." the village lies in one of the regions hardest hit by conflict and those with weapons crave gold to fund their activities and to enrich their leadership.
when former seleka rebels raided the community in a quest for gold in september last year they massacred more than 200 villagers and razed hundreds of homes.
'we collected at least 213 bodies some of which had been burned alive" said ines mokotemapa a volunteer worker for the central african red cross based in yaloke 45 kilometers from gaga.
'more than 400 houses were burned down" mokotemapa added.