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What is a whopping 709-carat diamond worth? It's a mystery in Sierra Leone

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — The recent find of a mammoth diamond the size of a hockey puck has everyone in this small West African nation wondering how big a fortune it will fetch.

Giddy talk about the gem's worth is providing a needed uplift in a country long plagued by misfortunes that include a deadly Ebola epidemic in 2013-16 and a decade-long civil war that broke out in 1991.

Even diamonds have a bad connotation here. Smugglers took advantage of the country's abundance of precious stones to sell them illegally and help finance that brutal conflict. The gems gained the name "blood diamonds" and inspired the 2006 movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

“This diamond makes me happy even though I am not the owner,” said Mohamed Bangura, 28, a bartender on popular Lumley beach. “When I saw it being displayed on national TV by the president, I felt good that after all these years, our country is making headlines again for a good reason.”

Sierra leone mapA few years ago, this beach was deserted because of a nationwide ban on public gatherings to prevent the spread of Ebola, which killed nearly 4,000 people in Sierra Leone.

Now on a recent sunny day, people on the beach enjoy picnics and discuss how local Pastor Emmanuel Momoh found the huge diamond in May in his small mining plot in Kono, in the east. Mining is a common alternative to subsistence farming in this impoverished country.

Following a law passed to curb diamond smuggling, the pastor handed the diamond, dubbed the "Transparent Gem," to the government, which is supposed to sell it and give the proceeds to him after collecting a 3% tax.

“My fear is, how will the money be shared and spent?” Bangura asked. “Diamonds worth millions of U.S. dollars have been smuggled before and nothing happened.”

The-sierra-leone-diamondDiamond experts say the gem could be the 10th-largest ever discovered and initially pegged its value at $50 million.

A few days before the new gem was put on auction, the diamond-mining firm Lucara sold an 813-carat diamond for $63 million in London. But the top offer for the Transparent Gem was only $7.8 million at a May auction. The government rejected the bid.

“The next step is to call for an international bidding to be held either in Tel Aviv or Antwerp to ensure the right price is paid,” government spokesman Abdulai Bayraytay said, referring to major diamond centers in Israel and Belgium.

Since then, the government has refused to answer questions about the diamond. That has led to much speculation about the sale and what happens next.

Cecilia Mattia, national coordinator for a mining watchdog group, said the country's diamond wealth often has led to tragedy: Thousands have died because of illegal trade, and rebels started the civil war by seizing mining regions.

“Diamonds and other minerals have not been very helpful to Sierra Leone for some obvious reasons,” Mattia said.

Now some hope diamonds can benefit the country.

“Our district lacks good roads, no electricity and no water,” said Fanday Musa, 25, a taxi-motorcycle driver in Kono, where the pastor found the stone.

The civil war destroyed Kono and left 50,000 dead nationwide. Musa hoped Momoh, the pastor, would spend his fortune from the diamond in his community. The churchman's mines employ a handful of men, providing crucial jobs for Kono.

“It’s a shame,” Musa said. “The name Kono is known worldwide, but on reaching here you will see the deplorable ruins left behind by the war. I hope the blessing of this gem will give a face lift to my town.”

Momoh believes he and his fellow citizens will receive their windfall soon.

“I am very satisfied," he said about giving the diamond to the authorities. "I am looking forward to the government working on how to sell the diamond in the interest of Sierra Leone.”

Others were impatient. “I want this diamond to be sold now,” said taxi driver Mohamed Sall, 34, of Bo South, an inland city. “Our country needs the money badly.”

Government officials counsel patience. “In the 1990s, our country was known for blood diamonds,” said Bayraytay, the government spokesman. “This is now a golden opportunity to let the world know that Sierra Leone is back on track. This diamond will help us achieve that.”

Some also hope the diamond heals the nation after Ebola.

“This is the first time since my adult life a diamond has been given this kind of attention,” said Ramatu Turay, 35, a street vendor in Port Loko, a northern district. “I lost relatives to Ebola in 2014. But this diamond is a way of wiping tears from Sierra Leone."

Alpha Kamara, Special for USA TODAY