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Misery of children enslaved by the gun

July 10, 2001 · 


Published in Guardian Unlimited Reports
(July 10, 2001)

Sarah Ayero had never seen a gun before one was put to her head. Three days later, she was learning to dismantle an AK-47 and to kill people at close range. She was 12 years old. The untold quantities of small arms swilling around northern Uganda and its borders make Sarah and thousands of children like her a hugely valuable commodity. The Lord’s Resistance Army – the rebel force notorious for abducting boys and girls to kill or be killed – has no shortage of guns and rocket-propelled grenades, only of pliable and obedient fighters. The rebels view small arms and small children as a good match.

Sarah was kidnapped from her home on the outskirts of Gulu by the LRA eight years ago. She escaped last month.

“They put a gun to my head and a grenade to my neck and told me they would kill me if I didn’t come. They took my sister too. They taught us how to use a gun. It was very heavy and I didn’t like it much. Dismantling it was the hardest part but shooting was also difficult,” she said.

“I was taken to Sudan to fight the Dinka because they also had a fight with the LRA. I was very scared and didn’t want to fight at all but you have to and you have to kill. Some children liked shooting so much they had this thing called ‘wanting to kill’.”

Sarah’s nightmare and that of an estimated 5,000 other children abducted by the rebels is inextricably bound up with the massive trade in small arms to Africa, and the merry-go-round of guns circulating between wars on the continent.

The term small arms is poignant in this region. It is, after all, guns small enough to be carried and fired by young people that make possible a children’s army.

No one can say how many such guns there are in Africa, although it is a safe bet that most are AK-47s from the former Soviet Union or China. South Africa alone estimates there is one gun for each of its citizens, and it is by no means the most highly armed country on the continent.

Large parts of Africa – from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia – are drowning in weapons that have claimed millions of lives and left many millions more destitute, starving and broken. Often they end up in the hands of children transformed into murderers by drugs, terror or the discovery of a taste for killing.

Wars aside, guns undermine economies by boosting crime and instability. And when, as on Uganda’s northern border, a rifle can be picked up for the price of a chicken, they create a new and sinister market.

The human cost of the small arms trade is as great in northern Uganda as anywhere. The terror, misery and upheaval created by the proliferation of weapons has been devastating. Virtually a whole society lives in fear for the safety of its children.

The principal conduit for guns into the region is neighbouring Sudan. It supplies the LRA with the weapons that end up in the hands of children such as Sarah.

The original source of the guns is quite likely to be Ukraine. The former Soviet republic has unloaded much of its surplus military equipment to Africa through legal sales, but it is also the source of a huge illicit trade in small arms.

Once flown to Sudan, the guns are smuggled along relatively secure routes to Uganda. Some make it no further than border villages where weapons and ammunition are on open sale in the markets, usually at pathetically low prices.


The LRA brings in its own weapons but the dealers looking for other markets – cattle rustlers, bandits or communities at war with their neighbours – can be found carrying the weapons, strapped a handful at a time to their backs, across the border and deep into Uganda.

In some villages gun trafficking is now a main source of income for many men who travel far into Sudan to buy the fresh supplies of weapons flown in from eastern Europe.

Henry Akena watched his village of Atiak, north of Gulu, transformed by guns. “It used to be, if you had a gun your life would be in danger because the soldiers would find out and arrest you and even shoot you. Nobody wanted to have a gun,” he said.

“But now it is very easy. There are men in my village who go and buy guns from Sudan. They take their children to help carry them back and when they arrive they sell them very quickly.

“Guns make people very afraid and then they want to have a gun as well to protect their families. I can tell you where to buy one. I can even tell you which of my neighbours has a gun. It is illegal but it is not a secret.”

The guns have fuelled violent raids on villages by cattle rustlers in which dozens of people are sometimes killed in a single attack. And the weapons have fallen into the hands of both sides in a feud between Karamajong clans and tribes in neighbouring Kenya.

The Ugandan army has been deployed to try to stop the cross-border trade in guns, but the military is itself part of the problem. Frequently, what it captures it sells.

Small arms in themselves are rarely the cause of wars. Africa was frequently the battlefield in the ideological contest between east and west during the cold war. And many a rebel army sprang from deep disillusion with an abusive regime.

But the ease with which almost any insurgency could lay its hands on weapons often proved an important factor in the scale of conflict and killing. The clan fighters who terrorised and destroyed Somalia at the cost of so many lives were never short of AK-47s.

During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the Americans poured weapons into client states such as Somalia and Sudan. In turn, both sides fed the conflicts in Angola and Ethiopia. Each descended into its own distinct bloodletting, but whereas lives were extinguished, the guns remained and often washed from one conflict to another.

The individual impact of the gun can be as devastating as the havoc wreaked across countries, and the damage can be psychological more than physical. Some of the LRA’s teenage fighters grow to love their weapons. Others are terrified if separated from what they see as their only means of protection. All come to understand the terrifying power of the trigger.

A gun was Sarah Ayero’s constant companion even after she first fell pregnant four years ago. Now she has two children and does not care to count the number of people she has killed.

Two years after Sarah was kidnapped, David Oryema was taken from the tiny village of Pabo, 15 miles from Gulu. His parents were helpless to save him as other children marched up to the house and ordered their son to accompany them.

“The gun has ruined a lot of children’s lives because some of them like them a lot. They think it shows a lot of bravery carrying a gun and they like killing. They always want to have their gun with them because they believe that anyone can just kill them anytime. They are no longer the same,” he said.

“I killed people. Guns did not save my life, they wasted it.”

Armed in Africa … and the rest of the world

• More than 300,000 children under the age of 18 took part in over 30 armed conflicts in 2000

• At least 550m small arms are in global circulation – one for every 12 people

• Small arms comprise less than 10% of the legal arms trade, yet cause up to 90% of casualties in armed conflict

• At least 400,000 people are killed each year by small arms and light weapons

• 2m children have been killed in the last 10 years in conflicts where small arms have been used; 5m have been disabled and 12m left homeless

Chris McGreal in Gulu, Uganda
Tuesday July 10, 2001
The Guardian


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