JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
IT IS early Thursday morning and the sun is just rising over Chiwempala township in Chingola, Copperbelt Province. For Simon Simbeye, it is time to head to the mining pits at one of the worldâ€™s largest open cast mines, Nchanga Open Pit.
Simon carries food in a small knapsack, because he spends hours down the pits digging for copper.
But Simon is not a regular miner. He is just one of hundreds of illegal miners who flock to the open pit mine, run by Konkola Copper Mine (KCM), every day to scavenge for copper.
It is a risky venture. If he is lucky, Simon will return home in the evening to his wife and child with a little cash to afford a meal. Simon knows a number of men who never made it back alive from the pits.
Before I finished writing this story, one illegal miner died after being buried alive when the earth moved in one of the pits. The victim was 36-year-old Ernest Mwanakatwe.
According to official statistics given by KCM, the latest victim is the second illegal miner to die at the mine this year, but others think the number could be much higher.
Last month, one man died when the earth moved, crushing him, while another ended up in hospital with a fractured leg that was later amputated.
But not even death keeps the illegal miners from the pits, and they come in their hundreds from surrounding townships such as Chiwempala, Soweto and Kapisha.
Max Maona, who is in charge of security at KCM, which is owned by Vedanta, reckons that at any given time during the day, there are between 500 and 1,000 illegal miners in the pits.
His estimation sounds exaggerated.
But driving from one pit to another across the vast mine, the scale of the problem becomes more and more visible â€“ gangs of young men roam freely in the mine, scraping the ground for copper ore, some working alongside mine excavators as they dig.
Peering into the craters that look impossibly man-made, we see hundreds of men combing the earth.
Other more daring illegal miners burrow in the terraced wall of the pits to reach undiscovered copper ore. And sometimes, when the mine blasts the walls of the pits to open up more mining ground, it is the illegal miners who rush in first.
At least once every day, the mine sets off explosives, but not before a siren is sounded to warn everyone inside to get out. It is a safety procedure that is followed strictly.
But while the siren sounds a warning to KCM employees, it is an all-clear signal to the illegal miners to descend into the pits and make their pickings, sometimes stealing any valuable items left on site.
The illegal miners demand jobs, but KCM recently cut its workforce. Besides, majority of the youth are school drop-outs with little education, while a few others are still in school.
Others are too young for any legal employment. The youngest of the illegal miners I met was only 14.
Yet the illegal miners are not the biggest problem that security chief Mr Maona has to worry about.
When night falls, it brings with it even more dangerous criminals, notoriously known as jerabos, who enter the mine premises at will to steal metal to sell on the black market as scrap.
Among the workers, there is genuine fear for the jerabos. They have been known to order the mineâ€™s workers off their operation areas in order to steal, disrupting operations and damaging expensive mining equipment.
About two years ago, the illegal miners, after being repelled by security, damaged equipment worth over one million dollars belonging to the mining company.
According to Mr Maona, some of the illegal miners come armed with catapults and machetes.
On the night of February 3, a truck arrived at the mine with over 50 jerabos, who wanted to steal scrap metal from the mineâ€™s plants. Mr Maona describes the attack of February 3 as â€œmilitary-styleâ€.
Quick police response managed to repel the thieves, arresting eight of them. They are now standing trial.
Police deployed personnel at the mine to beef up security since the February 3 incident, but the intrusions have continued.
At his office, Mr Maona showed me a grainy picture taken of a tipper truck belonging to the mine, with about 30 men, sacks in hand, offloading the copper concentrate.
â€œThis happened last Saturday,â€ Mr Maona told me.
The jerabos are attracted to any piece of metal like magnet, and have even been known to use gas cutters sometimes to detach huge pieces of metal from old machinery and mine structure.
As we drive through the vast mining area, we come across a group of young men trying to make away with a gear for a heavy-duty earthmover. But because the piece of metal weighs several hundred kilogrammes, probably half a tonne, the men only manage to roll it across the ground with extreme effort.
They scamper into the bush when they spot our approaching vehicle.
A number of them have been arrested while carrying out these illegal activities in the mine, and have served jail terms.
But even after serving time in prison, the jerabos and illegal miners still come back to the mine.
Allan Musangwile is one of the illegal miners I found picking through the earth.
Last year, Allan was arrested for his illegal activities and jailed for a month, but he says poverty brought him back to the pits.
â€œHow can I feed my six children if I donâ€™t do this?â€ he asks.
The mine security is restrained from using maximum force in stopping the criminals, bound by international laws they subscribe to.
â€œOur hands are tied. It is a reputational issue,â€ says Mr Maona.
He thinks the thieves know about the mineâ€™s human rights policy and take advantage of it.
Mr Maona says KCM once considered fencing off the mining area, but it proved to be a costly option. About US$11 million was required to fence a 42km boundary.
But one thing is clear, the cat-and-mouse chase with the jerabos and illegal miners has now become a dangerous game.
DEMAND FOR SCRAP
What seems to be driving the illegal activity is the increasing demand for scrap metal at the foundries that have recently opened up around Chingola.
And talking to some illegal miners, one can connect the dots, and follow the trail of the copper thieves. At the very bottom of the crime chain are â€œSpaciosâ€, named so after the Toyota Spacio. These are men who just carry the bags of copper ore from the pits for a small fee.
And then there are some, like Simon, who scrape the mine floor individually to sell a bag or two.
But others have organised themselves into bands of up to 10 men they call company, working together to supply larger quantities of the copper ore to buyers.
One such company belongs to a young man called Ben (real name withheld).
He says his company manages about 40 bags every day. The buyer they supply, who they refer to only by his nickname, Sparks, requires that they fill up a tipper truck, which he buys for K5,000.
It takes 500 bags to make a truckload. And in a month, the gang sells about four truckloads.
Sparks also pays for the gangâ€™s food and other supplies as they work.
The buyer then sells the copper ore or scrap metal to the foundries.
Many of the illegal miners I talked to name Sparks as one of the biggest buyers of the copper ore and scrap metal. The thieves refer to him as mwe Mfumu (chief). Some describe Sparks as the Pablo Escoba of Chingola.
Copperbelt Province police commissioner Charity Katanga does not rule out organised crime, but says the police have no evidence so far.
â€œWhen you look at 50 people put on a truck, then it looks like organised crime,â€ she says.
It is mid-afternoon, and the illegal miners, each with a bag of copper ore on their shoulders, make it out the pit, at least for now, alive.
JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka