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Rough Cut: Congo: On the Trail of an AK-47
Arming Africa

Read the full story of the reporter's convoluted trail to trace an AK-47, which took him from militia strongholds in eastern Congo to the cloistered world of China's arms manufacturers in Beijing.

This story began with a simple question posed to Peter Batchelor, the U.N.'s leader for small arms and disarmament affairs as we walked through the dim, subterranean corridors of the United Nations building in New York. I was attending a preparatory conference to curry international support for proposed legislation to curb illegal trafficking of small arms and light weapons -- a category comprised of everything from pistols to shoulder-fired rockets -- and Batchelor was frantically meeting with diplomats, peace activists and arms lobbyists. I had only a moment with him: "I'm looking to track a weapon," I said, "back from a conflict zone to the manufacturer. Where have simple guns like the AK-47 inflicted the most damage?" His answer was quick and unequivocal: Congo.

And so I found myself, three flights and several days after departing New York, landing in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The scene awaiting me at the airport was chaotic: the country in microcosm. Airplanes crowded the tarmac, parked akimbo, their wings almost touching. Small mobs of people massed at the rear of ragged, ancient propeller planes, jostling for space among mountains of cargo and foodstuffs bound for Congo's vast, forested interior. Farther down the runway, an armada of gleaming, white United Nations planes and helicopters were behind guard posts and metal fences. We taxied to a halt alongside an old Boeing 727, painted in livery of the country's flag. It was the president's own plane, Congo's Air Force One, available for charter, for the right price.

An Exploited Past

Congo, or DRC, is among the most troubled places on Earth. Smack in the heart of Africa, the country boasts a surfeit of natural resources, but its wealth has been a blessing and a curse. From 1885, the territory was a personal fiefdom of the Belgian king, Leopold II, and experts estimate that his brutal, bloody, systematic exploitation of rubber and copper workers during that time let half the population die from violence or disease. Eventually, the international community condemned the brutality, and in 1908, ownership of the colony was transferred to the Belgian government. But conditions improved marginally.

Congo is among the most troubled places on Earth. Smack in the heart of Africa, the country boasts a surfeit of natural resources, but its wealth has been a blessing and a curse.

Independence came on June 30, 1960, but only six months later -- with Central Intelligence Agency assistance -- the fledgling independent state's prime minister, the fiery, left-leaning Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated. Control fell to Joseph Desire Mobutu, army chief of staff, a charismatic, ambitious Western-friendly officer. He reigned over the country for 36 years, siphoning some $4 billion in state funds to personal foreign accounts, eliminating his enemies, suppressing dissent, pitting tribe against tribe and presiding over the disintegration and decay of a once-hopeful nation.

In 1996, aged, ill and seemingly willfully ignorant of the catastrophe he had overseen, Mobutu's firm grip on power loosened. In the vacuum, the rebel leader Laurent Kabila marched on the capital from eastern Congo, seizing control and sparking a vicious war that enveloped the country. Soon, the armies of six of Congo's neighbors were embroiled in a five-year war motivated by ethnic hatred, political opportunity and base material greed.

Today, Kinshasa bears both the hallmarks of the former dictator's kleptocratic reign and the war that followed. Along the main highway from the airport to downtown, Mobutu's grandiose, hubristic, now crumbling civic projects seem an insult to the thousands of people walking or squatting alongside the road. Radiating like the leaves of a palm frond, muddy dirt streets branch off the main road, disappearing into endless shantytowns.

Ben in Car

The Lawless East

Kinshasa's population was once manageable, but war and the insecurity of rural life have encouraged a vast migration from the surrounding countryside. But unlike other teeming, magnetic urban cores where I've traveled, Congo's largest city radiates a tense, paranoid energy, where citizens are outwardly aggressive toward foreigners with cameras and the fragile government's arbitrary enforcement of law and order feels only a step removed from anarchy.

The capital continues to experience unrest: Recently, after losing runoff elections in the country's first vote in four decades, the failed candidate's private army waged battles in the streets, killing hundreds. But the vast majority of the U.N.'s 16,500 troops -- its largest peacekeeping mission to date -- are based in the east, along the mountainous, jungle borders of Rwanda and Uganda, where well-armed rebel militias inflame tribal and political tensions, rape women and children and force the local population to mine gold, coltan (a primary component of cellphone circuit boards), timber and other easily extracted and sold resources from the fertile land. This is where I was headed.

The vast majority of the U.N.'s 16,500 troops are based in the east, along the mountainous, jungle borders of Rwanda and Uganda, where well-armed rebel militias inflame tribal and political tensions.

After squaring away logistics and soliciting advice in Kinshasa, I made my way back to the airport and hopped a U.N. plane for the city of Bukavu, perched on steep, lush hills above Lake Kivu. This is the Great Lakes region of eastern Africa, where a line of inland seas runs from Lake Albert in northeastern Congo to Lake Tanganyika, which extends into northern Zambia. Bukavu is situated in South Kivu province. There, along with North Kivu, people have witnessed the most horrific casualties and consequences of war.

An estimated one million civilians are still displaced by sporadic outbursts and the perpetual threat of violence. Roughly four million Congolese have died as a result; the vast majority passed away from disease and deprivation, not from gunfire. Yet, in this part of Congo, a thousand miles from the capital and beyond the protective embrace of government, a gun carries enormous weight. In unscrupulous hands, it can provide money, food, sex and shelter. And eastern Congo is flooded with weapons.

The Weapon of Choice

Of all these weapons, the Automat Kalashnikov, or AK-47, reigns supreme. It's the durable, cheap, usually lethal, Cold War icon of the Soviet bloc and resistance movements across the world. The gun's familiar silhouette -- easily identified by the banana-shaped magazine -- has appeared on Mozambique's flag, Palestinian currency and Russian vodka. An estimated 100 million have been produced in hundreds of factories in dozens of countries during its 60-year history.

Gun Butt.

In Africa, this weapon is the gun of choice; both U.N. soldiers and rebel militias carry them. With their legendary durability, AK-47s can function reliably for decades, and thus have often been transferred from arsenal to arsenal, from country to country, before ending up in the hands of rebels in sub-Saharan Africa. The documentation for most such transfers -- even the legal ones -- either rarely exists or is secret state information. Thus, the task of identifying the origin, let alone the long and convoluted trail, of a single AK-47 is nearly impossible.

Yet, I wanted to find out where these guns were coming from and how they were entering a region under a U.N. arms embargo. The U.N. in Congo rarely attempts this detective work, focusing their scant resources on collecting and destroying rebel weapons in the east and policing the nation's vast borders for arms smugglers. But with profits to be made and a never-ending line of unscrupulous arms dealers and traffickers, the U.N. troops that patrol this area the size of France face a Sisyphean task.

After interviewing two former Rwandan rebel soldiers outside Bukavu, I traveled south along the border in hopes of finding a Kalashnikov in the field. Perhaps if I could track a rebel gun back to the factory where it was manufactured, I might piece together how these weapons keep slipping into rebel hands.

The China Connection

In reading about the arms trade and speaking with U.N. officials, I knew that the most notorious arms smugglers -- like Victor Bout -- were Russian or from former Soviet states. Typically, these people were best able to profit from corrupt officials and poor oversight of the vast arsenals that were left unattended when the USSR fell. But as I looked through U.N. stockpiles of captured weapons, the majority of Kalashnikovs were made in China.

So too was the Type 56 AK-47 I bought from a rebel major in eastern Congo. Though the country of origin was clearly imprinted on the gun, the factory markings were ambiguous -- either they had been machined off the weapon or they had faded after years of use. And so, months later still on the trail, I found myself on a plane to China, descending amidst the haze and heat of summer into Beijing.

Aided by central banks, government loans and Beijing's offers of massive infrastructure projects, Chinese oil companies have invested heavily in Guinea, Nigeria and Sudan.

The Chinese link to Africa has existed since the 15th century, when an armada of massive junks is reputed to have followed the African coastline as far as modern-day Somalia, trading laquerware silk and ceramics for exotic spices, jewels and timber. For almost 600 years after this ambitious exploration, China turned inward, but today, the country's imprint can be found all over the African continent. Aided by central banks, government loans and Beijing's offers of massive infrastructure projects, Chinese oil companies have invested heavily in Guinea, Nigeria and Sudan, and resource-extraction companies are active across sub-Saharan Africa.

Recently, Western critics have chided the Chinese government for supporting regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe with horrific human rights records, offering low-cost loan guarantees that subvert international lending requirements and engaging in a new form of economic imperialism. African nations, for their part, are largely pleased with the new Sino-African relations, which have filled government coffers. But there's a seamy side to this newfound friendship: Frequently, these preferential arrangements are negotiated with promises of Chinese weapons. And in countries like Sudan or Congo, these weapons often end up fueling conflict.

Norinco

Before arriving in Beijing, I attempted to make arrangements with the two major arms manufacturers, one of which likely would have made the gun I purchased in the Congo. I went through official channels, meeting with diplomats in the foreign ministry government-affiliated think tanks and industry contacts, but to no avail. These companies, Norinco and Poly Group, are notoriously cloistered: Though ostensibly private corporations, they are in fact controlled by high-ranking military and government officials. And though both companies boast such diversified businesses as real estate, film production, engineering and heavy machinery, Norinco and Poly are still China's largest arms manufacturers. And in China, of course, weapons production is a state secret, not privy to prying eyes of Western journalists.

So much so, in fact, that friends in Beijing quietly suggested that I purchase multiple SIM cards for my cell phone -- lest my translator and contacts be tracked by curious security officials. And so, after a week of dead ends and no specific history of where my Kalashnikov might have been produced or how it ended up in Congo, I found myself at a small military-backed arms research laboratory outside Beijing, not far from the Great Wall. The army base also boasted a public shooting range, which had a single-room display of Chinese guns in glass cases. The only docent was an old engineer, now retired, who guided me through the small exhibit.

In a final, vain attempt, I pulled out pictures of my Kalashnikov and asked him if he might have an idea where it was made. Squinting at the images, he sighed: "Oh, this is an old one, so it's hard to tell. It's probably a Poly Group gun, but we've made so many millions over the years." And immediately I understood: the trail was dead, and I would never find out exactly where my gun had come from.

Then, looking at his watch, he said, "The range is closing, you'd better go now, if you want to shoot." And so I did, shouldering a new Chinese AK-47 some 10,000 miles away from Congo, emptying the contents of its magazine into the foothills of the mountains.

* * *

Benjamin Pauker is writing about the small arms trade and his trips to Congo and China for Harper's magazine. His feature article will appear in the magazine this fall.