Transforming guns into tools of hope

By Juan Michel
October 1, 2009

Seventeen years after the war ended in Mozambique, churches are still collecting and destroying weapons and cleaning up areas of unexploded ordnance so the land can be farmed.

When armed conflicts end, the world's attention tends to fade away rather quickly. Reconstruction, however, may take a very long time. Churches in Mozambique know this all too well, as a Living Letters team learnt in late July 2009.

'Living Letters' are small ecumenical teams who travel on behalf of the World Council of Churches' (WCC) Decade to Overcome Violence to visit churches which strive to promote peace.

Early on a Saturday morning, the three-member team made up of church representatives from Portugal, Switzerland and Brazil left the capital city Maputo for the community of Chinhangwanine, in Malengani, a rural area some 90 kilometres north-west of Maputo. There they witnessed an intervention of Transforming Guns into Hoes, a programme of the Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM).

A farmer had discovered a bomb, dropped from an aircraft many years ago, lying half-buried in a piece of land he intended to farm. The device, together with ammunition and a number of guns collected in the area, was destroyed by means of a controlled explosion.

Known as TAE (by the acronym of its name in Portuguese: Transformaçaõ de Armas en Enxadas), the church-run programme has been working since 1995, three years after the signing of a peace agreement which ended a 17-year-long civil war. The programme's name is inspired in the vision of the prophet Micah: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks".

Shortly after its independence from Portugal in 1975, Mozambique entered into a cruel civil war, partly due to its involvement in the struggle against white rule taking place in neighbouring South Africa and Rhodesia (today's Zimbabwe). Both parties committed atrocities which did not spare the civilian population until a peace agreement was reached in 1992. By then, war and famine had killed up to a million people.

Today economic growth is fast, although poverty is widespread, with more than half of the population of 22 million living on less than one US dollar a day. Between 2000 and 2002 successive floods and a severe drought hit the country.

What to do in a country awash with weapons

"This programme was the answer to the question 'What do we do with the guns?' that many people asked within the framework of the churches' post-war work on dialogue, civic education and reconciliation", says the Rev Dinis Matsolo, CCM general secretary.

TAE staff collect weapons from communities which hand them over and in exchange, receive some non-monetary goods: working tools, sewing machines, bicycles and the occasional tractor when the number of weapons is large. The programme is funded by development and cooperation agencies from abroad, like Diakonia (Sweden) and the Ehime Global Network (Japan).

Armando Chauque, a member of the Apostolic Faith Church and leader of the Chinhangwanine community, told the Living Letters team that they were receiving some construction materials to build badly needed classrooms for the local school.

"It is a struggle to convince people to hand over weapons", says TAE staff Luis Nicolau, who has worked for the programme for seven years. The main obstacle, Nicolau says, is a lack of sufficient goods to be given as incentives. Without these, people tend not to co-operate.

According to Nicolau, some 18,000 guns and devices were collected by TAE in 2008. Since the beginning of its activities, the programme has collected and destroyed well over 700,000 weapons and war devices.

Where do so many weapons come from? According to one estimate, during nearly three decades of war – over a decade of fighting for independence followed by 17 years of civil war – some 10 million firearms were put in the hands of Mozambicans. After the 1992 peace agreement was signed, trust between the parties to the conflict was far from being a reality. As a consequence, many weapons were buried and hidden rather than handed over.

Only with the progressive building of trust - not least thanks to the reconciliation work of the churches - did people feel confident enough to hand over their weapons and to reveal the location of repositories. But with time, many of them were forgotten – for instance when the only person who knew about them died – and so today hiding-places are still being discovered.

"Ours was an atypical war", says Boaventura Zita, coordinator of the TAE programme. "Even after the peace agreement was reached the rebels did not trust the government, so they hid their weapons, foreseeing the possibility of a new fight. The whereabouts of many of those weapons are still unknown."

Transformation at work

The TAE programme has some 27 staff and covers the whole country. The destruction of collected weapons and devices is done by cutting them into pieces in the TAE premises. If there are a large number or they cannot be removed, they are destroyed by blowing them up with dynamite.

This is done by specialized technicians provided by the state security forces. According to the contract between the government and the CCM, these technicians are not allowed to intervene in the negotiations with the communities or to interrogate people who hand over guns.

But sometimes the collected weapons are not just destroyed. Many of them become raw material for art works. The Living Letters team met Cristovao "Kester" Estevao, who is working on a peace monument located on the waterfront of Maputo Bay. The work features a huge earth globe and a dove fully made of parts of firearms handed over within the TAE programme. This aspect of the programme has involved several artists over the past years.

"TAE is a programme focused on transformation", s Matsolo emphasises. That is why it does not buy the weapons by exchanging them against money, but instead offers tools as an incentive. "As peace is not an individual issue, the communities need to be involved as such, therefore the incentive goods are also collective", he explains. "The aim is to mobilize and sensitize communities for a culture of peace."


(c) Juan Michel is media relations officer for the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva. He is from from the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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