June 22, 2006
AK-47s Known as ‘Credit Cards’ in Lawless Congo
By David Lewis
BUNIA, Congo (Reuters) - Some fight in flip-flops, others hope potions will turn their enemy's bullets into water and most take little time to aim, trusting in the theory: "He who makes most noise wins."
But the government soldiers, militia fighters and bush bandits in eastern Congo all have one thing in common -- an AK-47 assault rifle.
"At $20 to $50 each, it's pretty easy to get your hands on an AK out here," explains a source close to the militia groups in Democratic Republic of Congo's lawless Ituri district.
"There is no shortage of weapons, there are plenty of them," the source added. "Of course ammunition is needed, but that comes in from Uganda easily."
Ituri is a particularly bloody corner of Congo, a mineral-rich but shattered country where four million people have been killed, mostly from war-related hunger and disease, since 1998.
Far removed from central government authority, Ituri has long porous borders with countries coveting its natural resources and a thinly stretched body of United Nations peacekeepers. The region highlights the challenges of controlling the flow of arms around Africa's Great Lakes.
Fighting between ethnic militias exploded in Bunia, Ituri's main town, in 2003 and European soldiers were dispatched to restore order after U.N. peacekeepers failed to prevent hundreds of civilians from being killed.
As Congo prepares for elections this year, thousands of militia fighters have signed up for disarmament programs, in theory swapping guns for school, training and jobs as civilians.
U.N. peacekeepers ceremonially burned stacks of weapons, while serviceable guns seized off militia were given to the new army. An arms embargo is meant to cut off fresh supplies.
'CONGOLESE CREDIT CARD'
But, frustrated with the lack of opportunities in their new lives, angry at the excesses of poorly paid government soldiers and loath to stop looting civilians and plundering gold mines, many in Ituri have found it easy to take up arms again.
"There are still weapons that are coming in and this will continue so long as there are people who are willing to pay for them," said Major Hans-Jakob Reichen, spokesman for the U.N. forces in eastern Congo.
Sanctions have been imposed on those breaking the arms embargo. U.N. helicopters fly at night, using thermal imaging to try and catch smugglers. And peacekeepers in speedboats patrol hundreds of miles of lakes separating Congo and its neighbors.
But militia ranks have swollen in recent months and, as a reminder of their strength, they are holding seven U.N. peacekeepers hostage following a gun battle last month.
Reichen says the United Nations can act as a deterrent but can only do so much to rid the nation of guns.
"It is a huge task that the U.N. will not be able to fulfill until the authority of the state is imposed."
Ituri is a microcosm of the Congo where, analysts say, the wealth in gold, timber, diamonds and other minerals needed by expanding Western economies has been plundered by local and foreign armed groups during years of chaos and instability.
During Congo's two wars, the last of which officially ended in 2003, officials handed out weapons to civilians, telling them to use them to defend their ethnic groups from attacks by rivals.
Despite the billions invested in peacekeeping and the determination of the international community to hold Congo's first free elections in over 40 years in July, vast swathes of the country remain outside the government's control.
And thousands of gunmen continue to roam the lawless east armed with their AK-47s -- known to some as the "Congolese credit card" -- harassing and killing civilians.