Approximately three million small arms are circulating in Sudan and South Sudan. In the fourth edition of The Niles, our correspondents from both countries take a closer look: Where do the weapons come from? What societal role do they play? But most importantly: How many weapons are needed to establish peace and to ensure that the door on evil no longer has to be shut, as the above proverb suggests? A Darfuri fighter (photo), has a practical answer – a collection of talismans meant to protect him from bullets. But will it protect him from the person with his finger on the trigger? Albert Einstein, whose Theory of Relativity was proven in a 1952 experiment carried out in Sudan said: “The world will not be threatened by evil people rather by people who permit it.” Those words ring true here and will hopefully open another door and allow something good to slip in.
8 The Niles | Portraits up in arms How weapons influence everyday life: Accounts of relationships between guns and their owners. the bladesmith In a region where traditional weapons are a matter of pride, an east Sudanese septuagenarian provides a physical bond between people and their ancestors. by Hamid Ibrahim Hassan Mohamed Ahmed, a skinny 70-year-old man from Kassala, makes Shutal knives for eastern Sudanese who prefer traditional weapons to guns. The tall man has been sitting in the same position every day for decades, using hammers to form traditional weapons like the Shutal, a medium length knife with a crook at the front. “People in eastern Sudan prefer traditional weapons to firearms,” says Ahmed. “Swords and daggers will be in high demand as long as there are burglars in our communities.” His workplace in Kassala has walls made of hay, which allows air to circulate and remove fumes. In front of him is a fire, which he encourages to burn more fiercely using bellows. Abu Kraa’, as he is locally known, works sitting on a low square chair with his legs stretched out in front of him. He inherited his Shutal-making skills from his father, forging his first weapon in the same workshop in 1968. Since then he has built up a reputation as the region’s most renowned Shutal maker. His job is difficult, requiring skill and patience. “Making one sword or one Shutal takes me almost a week,” says Ahmed, who spends a lot of time on the detail of each weapon. “I refine iron by coal which I get from acacia wood on the Eritrean border.” Eastern Sudanese often carry traditional swords, knives, daggers and sticks, and the older generation often favour them over guns. Young people and children view traditional weapons as a link to their cultural heritage. They are commonly worn at big gatherings like weddings and the Shutal is particularly widely used by Beja people in eastern Sudan. Ahmed’s workshop also serves as his shop. He sells Shutals to people of all age groups, including children. People learn to use all types of bladed weapons from a young age in eastern Sudan where children learn how to strike and deflect others’ blows. Shutals are passed on from one generation to the next, forming a physical bond between people and their ancestors. And Ahmed sees no sign of its cultural significance fading: “The new generation sticks to traditions, including using these weapons.”
Portraits | The Niles 9 the fighting mother the gun seller After surviving a deadly attack on her village and family, a South Sudanese woman joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s (SPLA) rebellion. Now, she balances army life with motherhood. by Hannington Ochan “I was 14 when I realised I could be shot at any time, however careful I was,” Awa Rose says, adding that Sudanese forces killed many civilians in her village Kisangani, not far from Yei town. “I thought if I was around guns, I would be safe. I managed to run away with one sister... it was a narrow escape.” Unsure how to join the rebel SPLA, she signed up with the rebel police in Ombasi Centre, a walkable distance from her village. There she worked as an SPLA policewoman for three years, until 1996, at the height of war in what was then Southern Sudan. When word spread in her village that the SPLA wanted new recruits including tank drivers, she seized the opportunity. Being a combatant, however, was considered a man’s job and her new role did not go down well with all her family. “I remember my late mother begging me not to join the fighting forces,” she says. “But I had made a decision.” Her memories are fresh of the military training that made her a rebel soldier and tank driver for the SPLA. Foreigners coached fighters for the insurgency, then led by John Garang. “The Khawaja (white man) liked me because I grasped things quickly,” Awa says. There are no statistics on how many women soldiers there are in South Sudan, but the overwhelming majority are men. Since 1999, Awa has taken part in many missions. She also got married and has five children. Her oldest child is now eleven and her youngest is two. Like other South Sudanese mothers, Awa balances working and childcare. She regularly reports to her battalion in Juba, about 170 kilometres away from her family. “Every time I get back home my young kids tell me they want me to bring them tanks to drive too,” she says. She declines to say whether she has a gun in her house like most South Sudanese. She says that she understands people’s reluctance to give up their weapons as violence has spread fast in South Sudan since last December. Estimates suggest many thousands of people have been killed across five out of the ten states of the country, reminding Awa of the violence which made her become a fighter in the first place. “The ‘enemies’ we are combating are our former comrades,” she says. Earlier this year she and her troop were ambushed in Juba. “Many of our comrades died, few survived,” she says. “Despite all these challenges I still love my job.” Firearms of various make and quality are legally on offer in Khartoum shops, where Z., a local dealer, describes the changing trends of his trade. by Mahir Abu Goukh For clients in search of weapons large and small, Sudan offers a range of possibilities. Many of the weapons on sale are subject to government regulation, a black market still flourishes in the city as well as the country’s east, offering just about everything except tanks and combat aircraft. Most gun sellers, even those who work in compliance with local laws, avoid questions from the media. But after some prying, Z., who works at a gun shop in Khartoum, detailed the rules of legal trade. To legally buy a gun, a customer needs to be over 30 years old and have a valid license, which the seller can help obtain. “The license specifies the firearm’s calibre and type,” Z. says. “They check the individual doesn’t have a criminal record... Some people, however, are automatically granted licenses to carry, like people from the forces, officers and judges.” Licensed shops offer a limited range of weapons, including sonic or fire guns and rifles, in line with the Arms and Ammunition Act. Sonic guns make a loud noise and are mostly used at weddings or other events. According to Z., most firearms are Chinese, Turkish or Russian. He says the market used to be dominated by European weapons but that supply has dried up because of the EU’s embargo following the outbreak of violence in Darfur. These days, only used European firearms are available. Since 2008, hand guns have been largely imported from China. “They are good quality and have reasonable prices,” Z. says. Prices for guns depend where they were made, with Russian weapons costing more than their Turkish and Chinese counterparts. The cost also depends on calibre, with a 6 mm gun costing around 2,000 Sudanese pounds (US$ 350) compared to 3,000 Sudanese pounds (US$ 520) for a 7 mm Chinese gun and 8,000 Sudanese pounds (US$ 1,400) for a similar calibre Russian-made weapon. Prices also vary among the automatic rifles that hold more than five bullets. Automatic Russian-made rifles cost more than 9,000 Sudanese pounds (US$ 1,570), while the European equivalent costs up to 15,000 Sudanese pounds (US$ 2,600). Generally, only individuals who work or own estates in remote locations may obtain licenses for such weapons. Despite such regulations, the illegal arms trade remains worrisome for the country’s future security. Most of its clients are either members of criminal gangs or political groupings opposed to regional governments. If left unregulated, the illicit trade could increase Sudan’s role as a transit country for illegal arms, drawing it further into armed conflicts in neighboring countries and jeopardizing the lives of civilians.