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Facts, figures and physical and emotional reality as only women on the ground can quote


MARCH 16-31, 1998


Facts, figures and physical and emotional reality as only women on the ground can quote

By Ashali Varma

In the last three decades, Africa has seen more conflicts and wars than any other continent. Venal leaders have promoted ethnic and regional tensions. Dictators and arms peddlers have flourished. As the trade in small arms continues to prosper, what happens to economic and social development? Women and children are often the most brutalized victims.

Rose Mukankomeje will never forget what happened on April 8, 1994. It was the day the militia came into the compound of a convent where hundreds of her fellow Tutsis had taken shelter.  It was the day, Mukankomeje said, that 100 innocent men, women and children were brutally murdered in just 15 minutes, in what was to become  months of a nationwide genocide in Rwanda.

Mukankomeje was of the lucky ones who escaped death.  But her life was dislocated.  Millions of  men and women in Africa have had to flee their country due to ethnic strife and civil war caused by ruthless dictators and warlords who have wrought a reign of terror in their countries.  Mukankomeje is among these refugees.  And so are Catherine, Mabobori of Burundi, Isha Dyfan of Sierra Leone, and Anisia Achieng of Sudan.  These four women talked to The Earth Times about  the horrific impact on ordinary people’s  lives of a senseless arms trade that has fuelled ethnic strife.

The countries beset by conflict include Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi, the former Zaire (now known as Congo), and Sudan.  These are countries that can barely feed, clothe, and give shelter to their people.  Yet they spend vast amounts of money buying arms. And even though there are no formally declared wars in Africa today, more people are being killed as a result of these ongoing conflicts than ever before.

Development officials in United Nations and other agencies are emphasizing that African countries desperately need not only foreign aid but also private-sector investment in order to promote sustainable economic growth.  But they also point to the continuing expenditure on arms as a troubling example of how funds needed for economic and social development are being foolishly diverted by venal leaders.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says there are 22 million refugees who have fled war or persecution, globally.  Africa alone accounts for 8.1 million refugees. On March 2 of this year, the UNHCR appealed for $159 million to help thousands of refugees in five countries in the African Great Lakes areas.  This funding is intended for schools, water projects, forestry, crops and livestock projects, and health centres.  Refugees are also being provided with blankets, sheets and cooking utensils.

The international community appears to have given up on Africa, says Asenath Bole Odaga.  She runs a small nongovernmental organization in Kisumu, Kenya which works with women in rural and urban areas.  Instead of helping war torn countries she feels that some nations create the problem by supplying the weapons which escalate conflict.  “We don’t manufacture weapons of war in Africa,” she said, “The day the developed countries pass a resolution to stop arms to Africa, our wars will stop.”

The answer is not as simple as that, according to Daniel Volman, director of the Africa Research Project in Washington.  He said the main sources of arms are the governments and private companies in the former Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies (now Russia, the CIS states and Eastern European arms-producing states), France, the United States and China. Other suppliers include arms-producing firms in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Israel

and South Africa.

Volman adds that no longer is the arms trade restricted between governments as it used to be during the cold war. “Today, there are private arms dealers—both licit and illicit—drug traffickers and people who are involved in the trade of ivory and other products from endangered species,” Volman said.

A Western diplomat in Kigali, Rwanda, said, “The country is flooded with weapons. Two beers will get you one grenade.” Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most of its 7.2 million people are, by tradition, subsistence farmers or cattle herders. And yet it is estimated that in 1995 Rwanda’s military expenditure was $115 million.

According to the Human Rights Watch Arms Project, “The inf1ux of weapons from foreign sources to both sides (the Rwandese Patriotic Front and the government) contributed significantly to needless and abusive civilian deaths and suffering.” Sources from both sides told the Arms Project that as one side received more weapons, and weapons of greater lethality, the other tried to match it. Foreign governments and other suppliers were only too willing to fuel this arms race.

The Arms Project obtained confidential documents concerning a $6 million arms sale to Rwanda by Egypt. It also received information that France’s large bank, Credit Lyonnais, made the $6 million deal possible through provision of a bank guarantee. Terms of this purchase had been kept secret. It included automatic rifles, mortars, long-range artillery, shoulder-fired rockets, munitions, land mines and plastic explosives.

The Arms Project also obtained an invoice concerning a $5.9 million arms purchase from South Africa. Rwanda has also purchased arms from France.

One person this trade affected was Rose Mukankomeje, who taught at the University at Butare before the war. She lost her parents, her three brothers and their families.

She had left the university to spend the Easter holidays with friends in Gisenyi in the western part of Rwanda on the shores of. Lake Kivu. Back at the university the militia took the lives of her nephew, a niece and a cousin. Mukankomeje managed to escape after three weeks— hiding with a missionary who bribed some militia to take her and three Tutsi children across the lake to Zaire. “It was a six-hour boat ride and we escaped with only the clothes on our back,” she said.

Through the help of friends, Mukankomeje managed to reach Brussels where she continued her studies. In 1995, she said she was asked to return to Rwanda by many of her friends who said the country needed her. Mukankomeje resisted at first. “My whole family was gone,” she said. “The war had killed one million people, had created two million refugees and thousands of widows and orphans.”

The victims of the wars are not only soldiers who fight, or the governments or agents who buy and sell the arms.  The main victims are the most vulnerable, the most innocent part of society—-the children.  According to Unicef, in the last decade, 2 million children have been killed; 4 to 5 million children disabled; 12 million children left homeless and more than 1 million have been orphaned or separated from their families.

“I went back for the women and children,” Mukankomeje said. Today, Mukankomeje is a parliamentarian, one of 12 women out of 70. “We have a caucus for women for peace. I go to the grassroots and try and talk to the women. They are so traumatized. I take back their problems to the government so that we can help them.”

She said that now that the rebuilding process has started, the country needs support from the international community more than ever before.

“We have to rebuild from scratch but the international aid has dried up and when people are without food, shelter an clothing with nothing to look forward to, it is a very dangerous situation,” Mukankomej said.

This February, Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council to reactivate the International Commission of Inquiry into arms trafficking to the former Rwandan government and allied militias and extending the Commission’s mandate to include Burundi.

The Commission’s report showed the extent of international involvement in proliferation of arms in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa and—-by extension–governments’ complicity in the serious abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law that have taken place there.

An addendum to the report, which was released January 30, 1998, sheds further light on arms deliveries to the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide, naming the government of the  Seychelles, a member of the former Rwandan government who is currently awaiting trial before International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, a South African arms broker, and the Banque National de Paris as being implicated in one possible violation of the Rwandan arms embargo.

In its research on Burundi, Human Rights Watch exposed how international actors have  continued to provide weapons to both the government and rebel forces.

For the past four years, Burundi has been engulfed in a vicious war of ethnic slaughter that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of unarmed civilians and forcibly displaced thousands.  Since 1993, a number of countries, including China, France, North Korea, the Russian Federation, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and the United States have directly provided military support to the forces engaged in the fighting according to Human Rights Watch. France and the United States have stated that their assistance ceased in 1996. Sometimes governments—-China is a case in point—-hide behind the cover of nominally autonomous companies to advance their strategies or commercial interests.

The report states that private arms merchants have taken advantage of poor controls at border points and corrupt officials in South Africa and Europe to ship arms from former East Bloc countries to the Great Lakes region. They have constructed elaborate covert operations to escape public scrutiny. One particular arms shipment from China listed the cargo as “farm implements.”

A Burundian woman, Catherine Mabobori lives in Bujumbura, the capital. She said that the most terrifying thing about civil war is the proliferation of arms and the indiscriminate use of arms against civilians. “I have heard the arms are coming from Europe. Those who bring them in are supplying them to everybody, even civilians for self-defense. The government spends on arms to keep it power and the citizens live in fear.”

The military expenditure for Burundi in 1995 was $46 million, which was 24.8 percent of the central government expenditure.

Mabobori said that the frightening thing is that there are no clear war zones and that civilians are killed in the skirmishes between the government and the rebels.

“In the last five years about 200,000 people have been killed but there is no official figure,” Mabohori said. About 250,000 people have left the countryand more have been displaced, driven from their homes. The impact of war can be seen everywhere. In many areas clinics and schools are closed and the rate of children attending primary school has gone down from 70 percent to 40 percent.

In 1993, Mabobori created Women for Peace which encourages women from different political groups to come together and work for peace. “We talk to them about not letting their boys and men be taken in by groups to become rebels. We help them start income-generating activities and through these groups we reach out to others with our message of peace,” Mabobori said.

According to Volman, rebel groups get the funds to buy arms from a number of sources: from friendly governments both in Africa and elsewhere; from diaspora communities; from the sale of natural resources; from criminal activity; and sympathetic individuals. “UNITA in Angola, for example sells diamonds mined from areas under its control and has also obtained arms through military aid from China, the United States and South Africa,” Volman said.

According to Human Rights Watch, De Beers admits spending $500 million to buy—legally and illegally –diamonds mined in Angola in 1992.

In fact even nations that are now at peace are awash with weapons as in the case of Mozambique.  According to a report by Dr. Christopher Smith in Jane’s Intelligence Review, “Demobilized soldiers who managed to keep a hold of their weapons are selling them to anyone, at a price, when times are hard, and they do not come much harder than modern-day Mozambique. The price of an AK-47, with a couple of clips of ammunition can be as low as $14 or exchanged for as little as a bag of maize. It is estimated that there are 6 million AK-47s at large in Mozambique alone.”

Smith says that once these weapons reach South Africa they can retail for between $400 and $500. The weapons enter the country usually hidden in tanks, or in secret compartments in vehicles. One recent shipment of weapons was discovered under a consignment of fish.

“Total arms transfers to sub-Saharan Africa since independence were worth at least $30 billion, of which an estimated 10-15 percent worth were small arms and light weapons,” Volman said.

“Perhaps the most startling fact that many people don’t know,” said Volman, “is that while most Africans are very poor, the continent is both blessed and cursed by an abundance of valuable natural resources; including diamonds, oil, natural gas, lumber, ivory and other products from endangered species.” Volman added, “Minerals are also plentiful, such as copper, gold, titanium, cobalt and platinum. Consequently, it is remarkably easy for governments and armed groups to finance arms purchases by selling off the resources under their control. As a result, arms—-particularly the small arms and light weapons that have played such an important role in recent outbreaks of violence—continue to flood into Africa prolonging and intensifying conflicts throughout the continent.”

This is true of Sierra Leone, said Isha Dyfan, a British trained lawyer, who is Commissioner in charge of advocacy in the Federation of African Women Peace Networks. “My country has  been at war since 1991. It was a spill-over from the Liberian conflict of 1990. Rebels from Liberia and Sierra Leone toppled the one-party dictatorship which had been ruling the countryfor 25 years. The rebels occupied all the areas, which were rich in minerals, gold and diamonds—and areas that also had cocoa plantations. They financed the war by selling this for arms.”

The government hired a mercenary group from South Africa called “Executive Outcomes,” Dyfan said, and eventually pushed the rebels out. But the rebels kept getting arms from Burkina Faso and were also supported by Ukraine.

Finally, the economy collapsed, 800,000 people were internally displaced and 500,000 became refugees, fleeing the country. “Most of the victims who were killed were civilians,” Dyfan said.

The most vicious act of the rebels was to abduct children and drug them with cocaine to induce them to fight. According to Unicef, 4,500 children were forced to fight and commit atrocities.

“The cruelest part was the initiation ceremony, where the children and young men were made to cut off a limb of a victim and rape a woman.  The whole population was traumatized,” he added.

It was only when the women of Sierra Leone went to the Fourth World Conference in Beijing and discussed what was happening in their countries that the world sat up to listen, according to Dyfan.  “We pushed for a national peace movement and we were the first to make it a national issue.  The government was trying to cover it up as a small internal skirmish,” Dyfan said. 

Dyfan was targeted and her home was burnt down. She managed to escape to the US but feels frustrated.

“We finally have a peace accord and an elected President Ahmed Tejen Kabbah, who is in exile but is scheduled to return to Sierra Leone this month,” said Dyfan. “I don’t have anything here, I am a refugee. People don’t need my help here.  I would like to return, I would be better off helping my own people. My interest is in peace building and women’s rights.”

Anisia Achieng is the coordinator for the Sudanese Women’s Voice for Peace movement and comes from Southern Sudan. Sudan has had a conflict situation for four decades.

“The root cause of the conflict has been a lack of economic development in Southern Sudan, racial inequality and a lack human rights,” Achieng said. “The black population are never in positions of leadership. So the majority, which consists of blacks are fighting to get their rights. They want the Arab dominated government to give them more autonomy, racial equality and religious freedom.”

It is estimated that one million people have died due to the conflict and the famines which have resulted from a nation at war.

“Sudan has gold and oil and gets arms help from Western countries as well as some Arab states,” Achieng said. “China also has close ties to Sudan and sells the government bombs and guns. This is not a tribal war but a political one. We have 4.2 million displaced people, who live in abject poverty. Three generations of children have not been educated and there are 20,000 orphans who have few people to care for them.” But instead of rebuilding the infrastructure the government continues to buy arms to quell the rebels.

Achieng herself is an orphan. “When my father was killed in 1970 my grandmother took me to missionaries in Uganda, where I was educated. In 1972, I went back to Sudan,” she said. “I did not know Arabic so I could not study in the university.”

Achieng managed to get a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology in Kenya and now works in areas near the border of Sudan and helping people at the grassroots get educated  and talking  to them about their rights and, most of all, about peace.

Through the courage and conviction of women like Mukankomeje from Rwanda, Mabobori from Burundi and countless others, there is hope that Africa might one day see peace. International official say that through these women of courage, perhaps the global community will realize the importance of putting a stop to the lethal trade in arms that has destroyed the lives of millions.

But the women say that the sounds of gunfire have not diminished, they are still counting the dead and giving succor to the wounded, the children without parents and the wives without husbands.