and other places where the threat, and reality, of random violence is great,
it's not bullets that kill most people, but the threat of bullets. In the last
decade, millions of people have died in the Congo, the victims of a series of
civil wars and uprisings that are still smoldering. Most died of disease or
starvation, not bullet wounds. But the root cause was the sudden easy
availability of cheap automatic weapons in the 1990s.
The AK-47 has become as much
of a curse for Africa as many major diseases. Not just in the places you hear
about, like Somalia, Congo and Sudan, but in many others as well. Easy
availability of firearms has produced a murder rate in South Africa that is,
per capita, ten times what it is in the United States. The east African nation
of Kenya has seen many rural tribes getting cheap AK-47s in the last decade.
This has resulted in traditional crimes, like stealing cattle or land, turning
into bloody wars. In western Kenya alone, 20-30 men are dying each month in
tribal clashes. This is a death rate nearly ten times higher than in the
pre-AK-47 days. The violence has caused over 50,000 people to flee their homes,
and wrecked local government in many areas. Sending in additional police and
soldiers has quieted things down somewhat. But the local guys with the guns
know where to hide, and the government reinforcements don't. So, eventually,
the police will leave, and the AK47s will still be there.
Foreign aid organizations have
adapted by hiring some of the local gunmen, to protect the relief operations
from all the other gunmen. That just takes money away from more socially
acceptable work. But the guns cannot be ignored. Local bad guys can steal a lot
more when armed with an AK-47, than in the old days when all he had was a spear
or an axe.
The disruptive effect of all
these guns has halted, or reversed, decades of progress in treating endemic
diseases. Death rates from disease and malnutrition are going up. All because
of several million Cold War surplus AK-47s getting dumped in Africa. The world
market for such weapons was glutted by the late 1990s. All that was left was
Africa, but only if you were willing to sell cheap.
The end of the Cold War
suddenly put over 20 million assault rifles and other automatic weapons on the
market. The most common model was the AK-47 (or AKM, or various clones).
Enterprising East European gunrunners scoured the world for markets, and
quickly found them in places like Africa, South Asia and South America. For
several years, when the flood of cheap weapons were at their peak, you could
get a Cold War surplus AK-47 for less than $100, delivered, by a battered Cold
War surplus Russian transport, to remote jungle airstrips.
The cheap AK-47 also made it
possible to use 10-14 year old children as soldiers. This was not possible
before, because the old weapons (spears, swords, bows) required muscle. But
now, if you could lift a ten pound AK-47 and pull the trigger, you were a
killer. Child soldiers changed everything, because warlords could just kidnap
kids and quickly brainwash them. These armies of child killers made
insurrection and anarchy more common. Tens of millions of Africans fled their
homes to avoid these tiny terrors, and many of those refugees died of
starvation or disease. These victims were just as dead, even if the bullets
didn't get them. In fact, few AK-47 victims died from bullets. It was the
massive fear, and breakdown of society, and the economy, that killed most
people confronted by all these cheap AK-47s. The kids weren't very good shots,
but if they got close enough to you, they were capable of unimaginable horrors.
Politics isn't the only thing
that comes from the barrel of a gun.