Tracing illicit weapons and ammunition in conflict areas is essential to identify the entities involved in international sanctions violations and the primary sources of illicit weapons’ trade. We have followed an expert carrying out investigations on the ground.
Mary Helen has just arrived in a small town in the province of North Kivu where a firefight took place between the Congolese army and a rebel group. The burning smell is still strong. Bodies were removed and there are soldiers everywhere. It is unusual to see a young lady taking notes and photographing in such a place. She examines the weapons and bullets scattered everywhere. Mary Helen works for the British NGO “Armaments Conflict Research” (CAR), which tracks illegal weapons and ammunition in conflict zones in Africa.
“Every bullet, assault rifle, mortar, rockets or other item of military hardware – says Mary Helen – can help us map out the flows of weapons in African conflicts.” “Ideally, it’s best to be following up the fight, so you can get there as soon as it is over to verify the types and origin of ammunition and small arms”, the CAR investigator explains.
The UN Force Intervention Brigade component of MONUSCO (The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) has been handed a strong mandate to neutralize armed groups in the country in collaboration with the Congolese National Army (FARDC). The ongoing operations are directed against militias operating in North and South Kivu. There are more than 30 armed groups, each of which consists of just a few hundred fighters. The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR – a Hutu rebel group in Rwanda), of about 3000 men is apparently the largest.
Juggling two cell phones, Mary Helen makes a flurry of calls and is granted permission by some of the FARDC military hierarchy to visit a recently captured FDLR bush camp, known as Kilometre Nine. “It’s best to just go there and speak with the soldiers, she adds, we need to get there before the FDLR ammunition is taken by the FARDC.”
Documenting the find as quickly as possible ‘in situ’ is imperative. Armed groups and national armies often share the same firearms. After military positions are captured, any weaponry and ammunition is often distributed among the victors and a link is lost in piecing together the supply chain.
After walking in the forest several hours, an area opens up revealing the detritus of living: bush meat hangs from trees, the smell of excrement pervades; there are beds made from branches, with straw as mattresses. There are ammunition boxes, but no weapons. Mary Helen begins photographing the ‘head stamp’ on the base of the cartridges. To the untrained eye the ammunition markings may appear meaningless. For the investigator, it reveals a telling story. A cartridge head stamp is impressed at the point of manufacture and “more often than not there is the country of origin and date of manufacture,” the CAR investigator explains.
“For example, the Bulgarian identity number is 10. Uganda’s Luwero Industries use Chinese manufacturing equipment, so have the same font. LI at the 12 o’clock position and the two digit year at the 6 o’clock position,” Mary Helen says.
The identity for Zimbabwean munitions is ZI, while some in Sudan carry an SU or SUD moniker.
There are other tell-tale signs on the head stamp that may help confirm origin – but are not sufficient on their own to determine it – such as the colouring of the primer (the ignition point at the base of the cartridge).
“There is Sudanese ammunition in the Democratic Republic of Congo. M23, a rebel group, also had a lot of it. Sudan is apparently supplying ammunitions to state and non-state forces across the region, from east to west Africa”, says Mary Helen
Conflict Armaments Research, established in 2011, is monitoring arms flows in Mali, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, and recently began doing the same in the Central African Republic. In the coming weeks the NGO will also launch an open-source database at the UN in New York, called iTrace. It is envisaged that the publicly available information will be used by national arms export control authorities, NGOs and investigative journalists, among others.
On 2 April 2013, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (FWD) to adjust a trade estimated at about 70 billion dollars a year of conventional weapons. Iran, Syria and North Korea have voted against the Treaty. A year after the adoption, 118 states have signed and 31 have ratified it. The ATT will enter into force after ratification by at least 50 states.
Conflict Armaments Research is documenting both militias and government forces’ armouries in Africa, “as the illicit and legal trade, in weapons and munitions, is linked. The primary legal conduits feed into the illicit market”, said Mr Bevan, director of CAR. Studies estimate that the trade in ammunition for small arms and light weapons is worth $4.3bn per annum – more valuable than the trade in small arms and light weapons themselves, an estimated $2.68bn.
Weapons traceability is among the major difficulties Car investigators face, since material can be quickly lost as weapons change hands within such fluid environments. Documenting the weapon provides another point to determine at a future time – how the weapon may have moved through a maze of military actors, both government and militia.
“African arms markets are evolving”, underlines the director of CAR, “with new suppliers and new supply vectors – both legal and illicit. However, the international community is currently hampered in its responses to illicit weapons’ proliferation, primarily because it lacks the monitoring capacity to understand illicit transfers fully, and on this basis, to develop appropriate counter-proliferation strategies”.