From factory to the firing line:
The story of one bullet
How do legally manufactured AK-47 bullets get into the hands of mercenaries and child soldiers? Their journey tells us much about the modern world, finds Foreign Editor David Pratt
This is the story of a journey; one that begins in a drab industrial complex, shifts to the splendour of luxury hotels and villas, then ricochets across oceans and continents before its final stage is played out in some beleaguered country. Though long and tortuous, it’s a trip that invariably finishes swiftly at roughly 700 metres per second and its ultimate destination is death.
This is the story of a 7.62x39mm copper-plated, steel-jacketed, high velocity cartridge for the famous AK-47 assault rifle, the most commonly used bullet around the world. The new film Lord Of War which stars Nicolas Cage as amoral but charismatic arms dealer Yuri Orlov opens with a rapid-fire montage which tells the story of a bullet, from its birth in a manufacturing plant, to its fatal impact on a child soldier. But what’s the real story behind the Hollywood device?
As a war reporter, I have often come across AK-47 cartridges. I’ve seen them stacked in foil-sealed wooden crates in the caves and jungle hideouts of rebel armies. I’ve watched fighters shoving them into their familiar 30-round curved box magazines, which in turn are slipped into khaki green canvas pouches strapped to the bodies of the gunmen for whom they are simply the stock in a deadly trade. Time and again I’ve been around when they were fired, the discarded empty casings tinkling to the ground then rolling underfoot in the dirt and sand of battlefields, murder scenes and massacres, from Bosnia to Iraq, Congo to Angola.
I’ve even fired them myself. The first time was in the 1980s, while travelling clandestinely as a reporter in the mountains of Afghanistan with mujahidin guerrillas fighting the Russian invaders of their country.
“Shoot, shoot, mister Daoud!” insisted the commander of my rebel hosts for the umpteenth time , as we rested in a remote craggy valley. With his holy warriors looking on, the commander slotted a full clip of the boat-tailed bullets into a Soviet-made AK-47 and thrust the weapon towards me. The time had long since passed for acceptable excuses about journalistic ethics and my non-combatant status.
Judging by the looks of the fighters around me, this had simply boiled down to an issue of initiation and acceptance; a very Afghan thing about loyalty and brotherhood. To refuse now would have made my presence at best uncomfortable, and at worst, untenable.
A battered plastic bottle was set up as a target. As I squeezed the trigger and the first rounds cracked against some rocks reasonably close to the bottle, the gawping bearded guerrillas who had clustered around began to grin. It wasn’t a question of them ever expecting me to fire in earnest, just about passing some strange macho muster.
After only minutes of instruction, the ease with which I was able to handle the rifle was proof of the AK-47’s reputation as a so-called “user-friendly” weapon. It’s the firearm of choice among mercenary suppliers who know that those who end up shouldering this oddly toy-like weapon which fires 600 rounds a minute, each powerful enough to punch a hole through a man’s chest from 100 yards will have had little or no proper military training. Put another way, it’s ideal for everyone from Rwandan peasant farmers to Liberian schoolkids-turned-killers.
That afternoon, following my noisy initiation in the Hindu Kush mountains, I picked up a few of the dark copper-coloured shells that lay in the dust to keep as souvenirs. En route through Pakistan on my way home from Afghanistan, I suddenly decided to throw them away, ostensibly for fear of being pulled aside at airport security checks, but also because of some lurking guilt about coveting a trophy of violence. Pausing to drop them into a bin outside Islamabad airport, I couldn’t help wondering where these bullets had first come from. How did these rounds make their way from a high-tech manufacturing plant to the war-torn wilds of Afghanistan ?
It was, of course, in Russia Afghanistan’s mighty former communist neighbour that the AK-47 (Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947) rifle, and those eight-gram bullets , were invented. The brainchild of a second world war tank sergeant, Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the AK-47 was the weapon favoured during the cold war years by non-Western powers. Robust, simple, cost-effective, it was the mainstay of “military assistance programmes,” in which Russia supplied its communist allies around the world officially and unofficially thus ensuring the AK-47’s global proliferation.
With 100 million AK-47s across the planet, the rifle’s familiar silhouette is part of modern iconography, making its way onto the flag of the Islamist Hezbollah movement and the Mozambique national coat of arms. In other African countries, Kalash a shortened form of Kalashnikov has even become a boys’ name.
Whatever we may think about the morality of arms manufacturing, vast numbers of AK-47 bullets start life legally in Russia. In the grimy, polluted city of Tula, 170km south of Moscow, bullet-making is a way of life. This city home to 550,000 people and hosting a military garrison of airborne troops, a 16th century kremlin as well as various onion-domed churches and cathedrals manufactures only one other product: the samover, Russia’s answer to the teapot.
Since at least 1940, the Tula Cartridge Plant has been producing rounds that fit the AK-47. Today it is the biggest domestic and export supplier of the bullets, which are marketed abroad under the “Wolf” trademark. At the factory, which resembles a scene from a socialist realist painting, 7.62mm rounds trundle off the conveyor belt by the million in a choice of either brass or bimetal jacket with a steel case. These are packed by some of the 7000-strong workforce into handy boxes of 20, or crated in larger numbers for bulk orders.
Many of the new rounds are likely to be sold through the Russian arms export agency Rosoboronexport, which also deals in older bullets sourced from cold war stockpiles. Ever since those tense years four decades ago, Russia and other central and eastern European countries have been sitting on billions of rounds manufactured for use in a full-scale war with the West that never came.
“Much of this ammunition is 20 or 30 years old, all from the 1970s and 1980s, so it’s near impossible to check on where they come from, and that’s just the start of the problem,” insists Alex Vines, a human rights and Africa analyst who has intensively researched the arms trade. According to Vines, former Soviet republics desperate for hard currency were only too happy to sell off their large surplus armouries in the wake of the communist meltdown.
It’s at this point that our bullet, especially if it originates from an older stockpile, can slip into a far more sinister channel, to become part of the vast ordnance on offer to a new breed of east European racketeers.
And what a breed they are. Gun-runners extraordinaire, like the Ukrainian Leonid Minin, or the Russian Victor Bout. Many people say that Yuri Orlov, the character played by Nicolas Cage in Lord Of War, is based on Victor Bout.
Indeed, the movie’s director, Andrew Niccol, is rumoured to have rented the Russian-built Antanov cargo plane used in a fictional African arms delivery scene from Victor Bout himself. In another case of fiction mirroring fact, the thousands of AK-47s used by extras in the film were bought by Niccol on the international arms market. Given that the average going rate for an AK-47 in Africa is $30, it would hardly be surprising. Niccol has said: “I actually did become an arms dealer in the making of the film in the logistics of making it. I had to get hold of a tank for a scene and 3000 Kalashnikovs. I bought real Kalashnikovs because it was cheaper than getting fake ones.” One can only assume that Niccol was making a political point by showing just how easy such a transaction is.
Men like Leonid Minin and Victor Bout are typical of the new breed of racketeer. So it’s possible that, on its journey, our bullet was one of five million catalogued in documents uncovered during a police raid on room 341 of Minin’s co-owned luxury Europa Hotel in Cinisello Balsamo, outside Milan, on August 4, 2000. Or perhaps it was among the 113 tons of 7.62 rounds the Ukrainian delivered by air into the west African country of Ivory Coast just a few weeks earlier a dispatch that was revealed in a fax discovered during the same police operation.
Ironically, the Italian police weren’t there to arrest Minin on any arms offences. When they crashed through his hotel room door at 3am that August morning, it was because of a tip-off from an unpaid prostitute. During the raid in a scene one reporter described as “straight from a Tarantino film” the leader of the so-called Odessa Mafia was found freebasing cocaine, naked, while flanked by a quartet of call girls.
“The Italian police arrested him for a minor offence and only later found out who he really is. Then they started to take an interest in the case,” complains Johan Peleman, a chain-smoking Belgian and one of the world’s most prominent arms-trade investigators, who has served on several UN expert panels.
To call Peleman’s task difficult would be the ultimate understatement. The world in which “bullet detectives” like him operate is characterised by a complex array of international and local arms brokering syndicates, clandestine air transport, money laundering, embargo busting and ruthless regimes. It’s a shopping-in-the-shadows world, where inventories of illegal arms which could easily include our bullet circulate between traders and suppliers. Then, when a customer is found (usually someone prevented from buying in the mainstream government markets), our rifle round is shipped by civilian cargo companies to a transit point, from where it is transported to its final destination in a war zone.
Fake end-user certificates (EUCs) are the first line of camouflage for the illegal arms dealers. In theory, these documents are provided by a purchasing government to guarantee that that country is the ultimate user of the arms being bought. But it is rarely this simple. “I have come across countless fake EUCs,” confirms arms analyst Alex Vines.
One such example was the Pecos company of Guinea in West Africa, a front organisation that supplied a seemingly endless stream of counterfeit EUCs to the arms smuggling network of Victor Bout (pronounced “butt” in Russian). A former KGB major, Bout has been referred to as the “poster boy for a new generation of post-cold war arms dealers”, who play an insidious role in areas where the weapons trade has been embargoed by the United Nations. Though worldwide in scope, Bout’s main trafficking beat is the volatile Central African Great Lakes region, from Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Angola.
A specialist air transport fixer since the early 1990s, Bout has been the overseer of a complex network of more than 50 aircraft, distributed among several airline companies and freight-forwarding outfits.
Although the arms merchant formerly based in the United Arab Emirates and now rumoured to be in Russia has been pursued for years by bullet detectives like Johan Peleman , a positive visual ID only became available when two Belgian journalists bumped into him at an airstrip in remote rebel-held Congo in 2001. Bout was then working with Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader of the Mouvement Pour La Libération Du Congo.
During that time, one of the journalists, Dirk Draulans, saw two of Victor Bout’s planes, carrying the registration numbers 9T-ALC and MLC both unknown to international aviation authorities. Later, a Belgian researcher verified that the aircraft had been flying between Uganda and DRC at least until November 2001.
UN officials have accused Victor Bout of using many “flags of convenience” and subcontracting arrangements for his aircraft to facilitate illegal arms and diamond smuggling activities, despite Bout’s assertions that his aircraft were simply used to deliver supplies to mining sites and take valuable commodities like coltan and cassiterite out of places like DRC and Angola.
“Landing heavy cargo planes with illicit cargoes in war conditions and breaking international embargoes such as the one on Angola requires more than individual effort,” stated a UN report on Angola in December 2000. “It takes an internationally organised network of individuals, well-funded, well-connected and well versed in brokering and logistics, with the ability to move illicit cargo around the world without raising the suspicions of the law. One organisation, headed, or at least to all appearances outwardly controlled by Victor Bout, is such an organisation.”
As ever, the UN’s use of earnest rhetoric in pointing out the obvious is masterful. Across Africa, bullets, guns and other weapons are delivered with alarming regularity in illegal operations that are chastised in a similarly feeble manner by global bodies, yet remain immune from direct international legal action.
In response, campaigners against the arms trade are placing great emphasis on the need for all states to mark shells and cartridges with codes or marks denoting batch/lot number, manufacturer and country of manufacture, year of production and a code identifying the original recipient of the ammunition lot such as a police or military force. All of which would help in identifying the convoluted supply chain either back to its original source or to its real end-user.
During many years of working across the African continent, I have stood on countless dirt airstrips watching Soviet-era cargo planes being loaded up with anything from gold and diamonds, to rocket-propelled grenade launchers and mortars, much of which has little or no accompanying “paperwork”.
“African conflicts are wasteful of ammunition and are always in need of more. The guys who carry this stuff in are just flying truck drivers,” says Alex Vines. He has a point.
In August 2003, at the height of Liberia’s rainy season, I flew into the capital, Monrovia, on the second humanitarian aid flight ever to have reached the country since the upsurge of the civil war a few weeks before. The aircraft was flown by a group of volunteer pilots who told me that days earlier, coming in to land on the first aid flight, they had almost collided with an unscheduled incoming cargo plane. “Later we found out it was flying in ammunition and guns for President Charles Taylor, which some people said was coming from Libya,” the 58-year-old Swedish pilot told me. “It’s always the same across Africa, you never know who is flying what.” One member of the pilot’s own crew even admitted to having “ferried a few bullets” in his time.
For arms dealers, it’s well worth the risk. According to Johan Peleman, while it’s difficult to put an accurate figure on the profits men like Victor Bout make, back in 2002 the Russian was sitting on a fortune. “The Rwandan government alone owed Bout $21 million. That gives you some idea of the sums involved in his business. But that doesn’t include barter operations arms for coffee or arms for diamonds,” says Peleman.
There is, of course, an altogether different price to be paid for every bullet that lands in those war-torn African lands . Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been the focus of Victor Bout’s activities in recent years. Sustained by the easy availability of bullets and guns, war crimes and other human rights violations have been widespread and almost non-stop. Extra-judicial executions, unlawful killings of civilians, torture, rape and other sexual violence, the use of child soldiers, abductions, looting of villages and forced displacement are among the atrocities to which bullet suppliers are callously indifferent.
How many rounds delivered by these international dealers in death might have been used during May and June last year when dissident elements of the RCD-Goma opposed to the transitional government, took control of the city of Bukavu in South Kivu province in Democratic Republic of Congo? During the terrible days that followed, these dissident militias subjected the civilian population to systematic human rights abuse until government troops retook the city. Many of the guns and bullets they used were undoubtedly supplied illegally.
More than 60 people were killed and more than 100 women and girls were reportedly raped, including 17 who were aged 13 or younger. Some were raped as their parents watched helplessly. One victim was only three years old. Extensive looting was also commonplace. The abusive acts became known popularly among the militiamen as “opération TDF” operation [mobile] telephones, dollars, daughters because this is what the soldiers demanded at gunpoint after forcing their way into civilian homes.
Many of the killings took place during looting, often after the victims had given all they had or simply because, as one informant told Amnesty International, “they didn’t like the look on your face”. On more than one occasion soldiers reportedly levelled their AK-47s at children’s heads to extort money from householders, demanding dollars for the life of each child.
The victims included Lambert Mobole Bitorwa, who was shot at home in front of his children; Jolie Namwezi, reportedly shot in front of her children after she resisted rape; Murhula Kagezi, a student killed at his home while his father was in the next room fetching a mobile phone to give to the soldiers; and 13-year-old Marie Chimbale Tambwe, shot dead on the balcony of her home apparently because a militiaman believed she had pulled a face at him while he was looting in the street below.
This is the bloody endgame in the story of our 7.62x39mm copper-plated, steel-jacketed bullet. On arrival at its final destination, entering the tissue of its victim, it usually travels forwards for about 26cm before beginning to yaw. Ballistics experts and doctors speak then of “damage patterns” a sanitised term for the way the bullet rips through abdomens, legs, arms or brains, sometimes deflecting off bones before exiting, leaving a gaping, bloody hole.
If all this is to stop, then tighter global controls are imperative. The question is whether the political will needed to implement such legislation exists against the murky backdrop of a lucrative business that deals in genuine weapons of mass destruction. Just as the profiteering has become a way of life for the dealers, so it is, too, for those who dispatch the bullets by pulling the trigger.
Some years ago in Liberia, I met a 14-year-old soldier who called himself J-Boy. He was sitting on a bridge overlooking the Po River, smoking a joint and loading some of those familiar copper-coloured cartridges into his rifle. Had J-Boy himself ever killed anyone, I asked.
“Oh sure man, plenty, plenty,” he assured me with a smile. “With this good AK and these real fine bullets, it’s way easy.”
Control Arms (a joint campaign between Amnesty, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms) campaigns for tough controls on the arms trade, see: www.controlarms.org
09 October 2005
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