Mozambique: Weapons of reconstruction

Originally published
Thirteen years after the end of the civil war in Mozambique there are still millions of guns scattered around the country waiting to be swapped for tools of reconstruction.

During the 16-year brutal civil war in Mozambique that ended in 1992, many young boys on their way to school were conscripted at gun point. Those who tried to escape were shot.

'Soldiers used to kidnap boys to boost their army and then they often took them back to their villages and forced them to kill someone from their family or friends to prove that they were brave enough for fighting,' says Graca Naca, who works for Christian Aid in Mozambique on a weapons amnesty programme.

Thirteen years after the peace agreement was signed, millions of weapons are still lying in what are often barely concealed arms caches throughout the country.

With more than three quarters of the population living on less than $2 a day, Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Boys who were forced to fight were not able to go to school and were not taught the skills needed to earn a peaceful living, once the war had ended.

Extreme poverty and lack of education can fuel crime. As long as the guns left from the civil war are still usable there is a danger that they could be used by the hungry and desperate - either to be sold to criminals for cash or to rob people.

Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane, who was involved in the peace negotiations between the Frelimo government and the Renamo rebels in 1992, came up with an idea for a weapons amnesty project that would help people give up their guns. He called the project 'Transforming Arms into Tools' (TAE).

In exchange for their guns, former combatants are offered building materials, tools and equipment such as sewing machines, bicycles, and ploughs. One village received a tractor for handing in 500 weapons.

He says: 'I tell people that sleeping with a gun in your bedroom is like sleeping with a snake - one day it will turn round and bite you. We tell them "We are not disarming you. We are transforming your guns into ploughshares, so you can cultivate your land and get your daily bread."'

He has created a scheme that takes the 'venom' from war - the tools of death are swapped into tools for making a living.

After being chopped up and dismantled by TAE staff, these tools of war begin their new life in the hands of Mozambican artists who create sculptures out of them. Their unique pieces of art are exhibited all over the world and include birds of peace, saxophones, chairs, monkeys, and even jazz bands.

The project has been so successful that other African governments are now considering implementing similar schemes, including Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the past nine years more than 600,000 weapons have been collected and dismantled.

As part of a major Africa 2005 season of cultural events, involving more than 40 venues and institutions in the UK, Christian Aid and the British Museum commissioned a 3m high 'Tree of Life' sculpture from TAE to promote the power of art in creating a culture of peace.

Hilario Nhatugueja, one of the four sculptors, says: 'We artists want to turn the situation around, change the story. Changing these instruments of death into hope, life and prosperity. This tree symbolises life, symbolises a future, symbolises hope.'

The Christian Aid-supported project has helped many Mozambicans to make a living. Filipe Tauzene, a former child-soldier, was shot through the mouth during the war and now talks with difficulty. 'The life I have now is much better as before I didn't have the bicycle to move and go to town and sell things in my shop. I didn't have iron sheets to cover my house. I have been given very useful things, which means I can get on with my life.'