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Small Arms in Africa:  Mozambique's Artful Disarmament

Despite many problems, efforts are under way to attempt to curb the threat posed to stability in Africa by small arms, including sanctions, weapons collection programs and other steps. In Mozambique, a brutal civil war left behind a bitter legacy, and lots of weapons. When the war ended 12 years ago, more than a million light weapons were believed to be buried in rebel arms caches, or left in the hands of villagers who had been armed by the government and told to defend their homes. VOA's Challiss McDonough reports from Maputo, the Mozambicans came up with a very creative way of getting rid of the guns.

It is late Friday afternoon in Maputo, and a small cluster of artists and musicians are kicking off the weekend. They are relaxing over cigarettes and a couple of beers in the yard outside a local artists' studio. The conversation is sometimes heated and sometimes serious, but always good-humored.

This is the Nucleo de Artes studio and gallery, and it is where some of Africa's most unique metal sculptures are born. The main gallery is a vaguely dilapidated gray building. Around the side are artists' workspaces, where half-finished paintings and sculptures lie around like surreal party guests.

Some of the sculptures are made out of guns. A two-meter-tall pyramid is formed from handgun ammunition magazines. A bird is made of the twisted barrel of an AK-47. They are the products of a unique program to reclaim the weapons left over from Mozambique's 16-year civil war.

Gun-sculptor Hilario Nhatugueja specializes in making birds.

"Those guns that made us suffer... Those guns that had been killing our family… Those guns that they had been bringing suffering.... What before, it was an instrument used to kill people, today, it's turned to something that you know, it can… demonstrate to people what is our feeling, that we hate war…. what before it was an instrument to kill each other, [now] it was an artwork for pleasure. It was something for contemplation," he says.

The Mozambican gun collection program is unique in many ways. It is sponsored by the Christian Council of Mozambique, or CCM, a umbrella group of 24 local churches.

When villagers find a weapons cache or someone just wants to get rid of an individual gun, they notify the CCM. A team comes to destroy or disable the weapons on the spot. Then, if any gun parts are left, they are turned over to the artists to shape into sculptures, which sell for hundreds of dollars.

In exchange for the weapons, the villagers get tools or other goods to help improve their lives. Sometimes, they get sewing machines, sometimes bicycles.

CCM Administrator Titos Macie says the goal is to rid Mozambique of the vast numbers of small arms that remain a threat to the country's stability, even after 12 years of peace.

"One of the messages that we are giving to people is saying having a gun, it's like having a snake,” he notes. “You can't domesticate it. At any time, it can turn and bite you. So give away the gun."

The CCM played a key role in ending Mozambique's civil war in 1992, and then the group launched several programs aimed at promoting reconciliation and healing. One day, in a workshop in the northern province of Nampula, a woman asked a question: What do we do with all of these guns in our villages?

Nobody had an answer. But later, someone at CCM thought of the Bible verse, in the book of Isaiah, about turning swords into ploughshares, and an idea was born.

Analysts and activists dealing with Africa's small-arms trade generally consider the Mozambican program a tremendous success. It has been going for nine years, and the churches have collected some 600,000 weapons and pieces of ammunition.

"The achievements I think have been beyond our imaginations, both in terms of the quantities of guns we have been able to collect, as well as the impact that it has into people's lives, and impact to the wider society worldwide," says Mr. Macie.

Disarmament specialists say the Mozambican program works better than traditional gun buy-back programs where people get money for their weapons, because those often allow people to trade in old, damaged weapons and get enough money to buy shiny new ones.

Analysts also say destroying the guns right in the communities where they are found builds people's confidence in the program. They know that if they report an arms cache, the weapons will be put out of commission, and will not return to haunt them again.

The CCM Secretary General, Rev. Dinis Matsolo, says the program never would have worked without the support of the people.

"Fundamentally, the involvement of the people was crucial,” he explains. “I think the most important thing that we have learned is that if peace is to be sustainable at all, wherever, you have to involve the communities."

When it started, the Mozambican program was unique in part because it involves church groups actually collecting and destroying the weapons themselves. Until then, in other countries, that had been a job for the police or the army. The CCM felt that many people, especially former rebels, would be more willing to turn their guns over to the churches than to the government.

But the group works with the support and staff of several government departments to make sure the weapons are secure and handled safely. They think of it as a partnership between the churches and the state.

Small-arms researcher Clare Jefferson of the Pretoria-based policy group Safer Africa says ridding the continent of its plague of light weapons requires governments and civil society to work together.

"So broadly, when people look at solutions, both from government and civil society roles, the spectrum of initiatives are divided into: there's management, which includes mainly police and legislative functions; there's resolution, how to mop up existing stocks; and there's prevention, how to stop… stocks from emerging," she says.

Ms. Jefferson says curbing the trade in small arms and reducing existing stocks will require not just country-based programs such as Mozambique's, but coordinated efforts on the national, regional and global levels.

In many parts of Africa, that is slowly happening. A number of African countries have developed national plans of action and toughened their laws to regulate small arms within their borders, and many other nations are working on similar programs. Both the African Union and sub-regional groups, such as the Southern African Development Community, have protocols aimed at controlling cross-border trafficking. So does the United Nations.

Most of those measures are based on similar principles. They include restrictions on how weapons can be sold to and how they can be used. They cover weapons collection and destruction.

But implementing those international protocols has been a slow process, and sometimes a frustrating one for those in the arms-control business. Ms. Jefferson, however, says they are important first steps in what will be a long process.

"The progress that has been made, although it has been slow, I think it will be lasting.... So in the industry, I am optimistic, and I think the future will be better than what the past was,” she adds. “But I think anybody who hopes to see impact in the medium term might be disillusioned. I think we're looking at a 20 to 30-year timeframe. It is moving slowly, but it is moving forward."

Back in Mozambique, the process is still ongoing. Nine years after the weapons collection program started, and with more than 600,000 guns and bullets destroyed, there are still parts of the country that the program has not yet reached.

That includes the northern province of Nampula, where that unknown woman first raised the question: What do we do with all of these guns? The Christian Council of Mozambique says they hope to finally start collecting and destroying weapons in Nampula in 2005.

In the meantime, a new gun sculpture crafted by Mozambican artists has just gone on display at the British Museum in London. It is called the Tree of Life.