DARK FOREST, Liberia: Peter Kollie was digging for gold in the forests of southeastern Liberia when the deep shaft he had carved out of the earth collapsed, turning into a dark, airless tomb.
But that was a risk the 20-year-old, like thousands of desperate and impoverished young men working the illegal gold-mining camps of the border region by Ivory Coast had been prepared to take.
“In such cases there is nothing we can do. We leave the body there and abandon the area for a while,” Lomax Saydee, a fellow miner and youth welfare volunteer.
“After a certain period of time we go back and re-open the place and generally in that case you discover a huge quantity of gold in the area where the person died underground.
“So it is like you are digging your own grave sometimes, because if it closes on you no one can help you.”
Kollie had been working in the Dark Forest, in the heart of Grand Gedeh County, where Liberia’s unofficial alluvial gold sector is a booming but poorly regulated business.
Boys aged from seven or eight toil alongside men in their 30s in expansive open pits, digging into narrow shafts which drop as far as 100 meters (330 feet) to gold seams from where ore is lifted to the surface in baskets on ropes.