The art of war

Artists at the Núcleo de Arte cooperative in Maputo, Mozambique turn weapons from the country's war-torn past into symbols of peace.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When Gonçalo Mabunda was only 7, his favorite uncle let him play with his Army-issued AK-47 on a visit home from the front.

Weapons were not new to little Gonçalo; Mozambique had been torn by civil war for most of his young life. But this was the first time he touched a gun and, as it turned out, the last time he saw his uncle.

Twenty years later, Mr. Mabunda also spends his days working with the cold steel of deadly weaponry. But he is sculptor, not a soldier, and along with other artists at the Núcleo de Arte cooperative in Maputo, he is taking Mozambique's weapons of war and turning them into symbols of peace.

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"At first, emotionally, it was very difficult," Mr. Mabunda says. "These weapons killed my family, my uncle. But we had a chance to make a message."

Almost no family was untouched by Mozambique's 16-year civil war. Five million people were displaced and an estimated 1.5 million killed in the brutal fighting between the country's Marxist government and foreign-backed rebels. Before that, the country suffered from 15 years of war during the fight for independence against Portugal.

In the past 10 years of peace, crops have begun growing again in fields once sown only with mines, and traffic bustles along roads once too dangerous to pass.

But despite the fading scars of war, an estimated 6 million to 7 million weapons are still believed to be buried in arms caches or hidden in homes.

The UN was charged with disarming both sides in the period following the 1992 peace accord, but many people held on to their weapons as insurance against future instability or out of fear that they would be held accountable for their actions during the war.

In 1995, the Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM) began collecting the leftover weapons, offering tools such as bicycles, sewing machines, and construction materials in exchange for guns, ammunition, and even unused land mines. More than 200,000 weapons have been collected by the project, and thousands of exchanges made.

"We don't really have the objective of collecting every weapon. That's impossible," says Christian Brun, one of the project organizers. "What we're trying to do is civic education, to send the message out about the dangers of these weapons and the importance of peace."

The group asks no questions of those who bring in the weapons, but often has to overcome widespread fear that the project will turn people over to the government for possession of the now-illegal weapons, or will accuse them of committing wartime atrocities for the rebel forces.

Alfredo Francisco Michel understands the horror of war and the power of weapons. He lost two children and one of his wives during the conflict, but today tries to enjoy his country's hard-won peace.

"It's been a long time," he says. "For 10 years, I've been trying to recover from all the hurt and the wounds. Things seem more positive now, and I'm able to go ahead."

But last year, Mr. Michel stumbled back into the past when he found a cache of AK-47s on the land near where his family farms. Not knowing what else to do, he took them home, but lived in fear that they would be discovered by the government.

When he heard about the CCM's "Tools to Arms" project, he contacted them to see if they would take the weapons away, not knowing at that point that he would be compensated.

Today, he stands proudly before his family's new three-room thatch house; the corrugated metal roof was provided by CCM in return for the guns. The guns have long since been destroyed, their pieces turned over to the artists at the Núcleo for inclusion in sculptures.

"I felt very glad to get rid of this piece of the past," says another project participant, Pedro Motuki, who received a bicycle for turning in several bags of ammunition in January. Mr. Motuki also lost family in the war. His brother was killed in an ambush on his way home from Maputo.

Mabunda and his colleagues choose the parts for their sculptures from a pile of rusting gun pieces left by the CCM outside their workshop. They have become experts in weaponry and can identify a gun's type and origin from only a small piece. Many see a certain symbolism in the types of weapons they choose, as well as in the subject of the sculpture itself.

One of Mabunda's pieces is a saxophone made from AK-47s and a bazooka. Mabunda says he wanted to turn the gun - one of the war's most deadly weapons, and the bazooka which makes a loud, booming sound - into something joyful.

"I tried to make something that was the opposite of war. It's an instrument that makes lots of noise, but its something that groups of people get together to listen to and celebrate," he says.

Many of the pieces have themes of music or nature. Birds symbolize peace, flowers represent life, music shows joy. Mabunda's saxophone still includes pieces that can be identified as triggers - but have become something beautiful.

"Everyone was affected by the war, whether you were a combatant or not," says another artist, Cristóvão Estêvão Canhavato. "Me, I like peace. I like to see people living under freedom. That's what my sculptures represent."

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