KINSHASA (IPS/GIN)–A Kalashnikov, or an AK-47 rifle, costs as little as $15 in Bunia, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

“You can even get it for less than $10 in the surrounding remote villages,” says commander Mika, whose militia forces are engaged in a power struggle with the rival Hemas.

The United Nations has deployed a peacekeeping force in Bunia to end the fighting between the two ethnic groups.


Lt. Col. Xenon Nzelani Zena of the Congolese Armed Forces says the influx of the illicit small arms began when thousands of soldiers from Rwanda crossed into Congo, formerly Zaire, soon after the 1994 genocide.

“Later we had the Congolese wars of 1996 and 1998,” says Lt. Col. Zena. “And most of those weapons have fallen in the hands of unauthorized and unqualified individuals or groups.”

The result is devastating. “More than two million people were displaced. About three million, including 10,000 child soldiers, were killed. Between 800,000 and 900,000 children were orphaned by war or AIDS. And 16 million people are now malnourished or hungry,” says Lt. Col. Zena, quoting official statistics.

Each year, there are over 700,000 deaths from small arms, more than half of them in Africa, according to “Light Weapons, the Making of the Moratorium,” a study published recently by the UN Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, based in Lome, Togo, in cooperation with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

There are an estimated 100 million small arms in the hands of individuals or militia groups in Africa, according to various reports. The proliferation of such weapons was the major factor in the ethnic and religious strife, political instability and violent crime on the continent, the reports say.

Small arms are those that can be carried by one or two persons or loaded onto a light vehicle. They include rifles, pistols, anti-tank guns, mortars and howitzers. Such weapons have been used to wage 46 of the estimated 52 wars fought in Africa between 1970 and 2002.

“The easy availability of small arms and light weapons is strongly linked with the dramatic rise in the victimization of women and children and with the phenomenon of child soldiers. Light automatic weapons can be carried and fired by children as young as nine or 10,” said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, addressing the Security Council meeting on “Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapons and the Phenomenon of Mercenaries: Threats to Peace and Security in West Africa” in New York in March.

“This link is particularly evident in West Africa, where the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and now in Cote d’Ivoire, have been fuelled in no small part by unregulated trade in small arms–often paid for with the proceeds from the illicit exploitation of natural resources,” he said.

The program of action on small arms adopted by the international community in 2001 offers a blueprint for action at all levels, including such steps as increased cooperation with Interpol and the World Customs Organization, Mr. Annan said.

The International Convention against the “Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries” came into force in Oct. 2001. “I urge all West African countries to join Mauritania, Mali, Senegal and Togo in ratifying this vital instrument,” he added.

Evelyne Mbata, the secretary-general of Action Group to Demobilize and Reintegrate Child Soldiers, has expressed alarm at the growing number of illicit light arms in circulation in Congo. Ms. Mbata, who organized a conference on proliferation of illicit light arms in the capital Kinshasa on June 6-7, said cheap weapons were available throughout the Congo to anyone with the cash to pay for them.

“Not a day passes by without hearing the loss of life in Kinshasa or another city,” said Ms. Mbata. “In the east of the country, where there are clashes among armed groups, we bear daily witness to a deplorable loss of human life. Its cause is either regular soldiers or militiamen who act irresponsibly and leave grenades or munitions within the reach of children, or the ignorance of the children themselves, who don’t know that there are weapons, such as mines, in their vicinity.

“We must raise awareness and provide information about the circulation of light arms and their uses,” she added.