Riding With Anti-Smuggling Militia on South Africa’s Diamond Coast

Riding With Anti-Smuggling Militia on South Africa’s Diamond Coast

The shooting begins, and it’s softer than I anticipated, dampened by the dunes. Some birds are shot right in their cages. Others, startled, descend to the beach and are shot where they land. They are too slow to lift off, too slow to escape. Over the pops, the men posture and cheer. They keep saying something-something-American, something-something-American, performing for what they believe is my benefit. I don’t know. Maybe it is.

Most of the birds are dead, and some are twitching, their beaks wrestling with the air, but no sound is coming out. I wait impatiently for the men to plant their gun butts and bottles in the sand, walk over to them, and wring their necks. They do, and rinse the blood from their hands in the seafoam.

Separating pebbles and diamonds from rubble. Courtesy Image

From the back of the truck, they take jars of beetroot salad, and we eat our snack with our fingers, the tips purpling. One of the men talks about keeping a CB on his nightstand, by which pigeon spotters communicate their reports. Two pigeons slump against a dune, and I swear to God, they turn to each other and make eye contact, before dying.

The men make a beach fire with brush. They bring a pot of seawater to steam and plunge the bird carcasses into it, scalding them to loosen the attachment of feather to skin. I drink more brandy, and they invite me to help with the plucking. As we skewer pigeons onto bamboo spears and roast them like marshmallows, the mist thickens, and every so often, I see a yellow arm reach through it, the hand filthy with pigeon blood and beach grit, offering me another swig. I feel drunk and hungover at the same time.

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