The Face of Modern War
THE refugee camp had been set up in haste to care for the 1,548 refugees who had arrived suddenly from a neighboring African country. Tents of blue and khaki stood pitched in a muddy clearing amid a forest of palm trees. There was no electricity or bedding, and there were no water taps or toilets. It was raining. The refugees used sticks to gouge small trenches to keep the water from flooding the tents. Two international relief agencies feverishly worked to improve living conditions.
Earlier, the refugees had seized the opportunity to board a dilapidated freighter to escape the civil war that had ravaged their country for years. The war was not waged with lines of tanks or with heavy bombers. It began when about 150 soldiers armed with assault rifles swaggered into the country. During the years that followed, the soldiers seized village after village, exacting tribute from civilians, recruiting more soldiers, and killing anyone who stood in opposition. Eventually, they conquered the entire country.
One of the refugees in the camp was a young woman named Esther. “The worst experience I have ever had in my life was the loss of my husband in this war,” she said. “They shot him. There is so much fear. You hear somebody shout, and you think someone is coming to kill you. Whenever you see someone with a gun, you think that he is going to kill you. I was never relaxed. Only here do I sleep at night. Back home, I could not sleep. Here I sleep like a baby.”
“Even in these wet tents?” asked an Awake! writer.
Esther laughed. “Even if I have to sleep in this mud, I will sleep better than I did where I came from.”
Ambrose, ten years old, had spent most of his life fleeing from war zones with his family. “I would like to see peace and go back to school,” he said. “After all, I’m getting big.”
Kpana, nine years old, has beautiful brown eyes. Asked what the earliest thing was that she remembers, she answered without hesitation: “War! Fighting!”
The type of war that these people fled is common in recent years. According to one source, of the 49 major conflicts that have raged since 1990, 46 have been fought solely with light weapons. Unlike a sword or a spear, which requires skill and strength to use effectively in combat, small arms have made fighting in war possible for amateur and professional alike.a Often teenagers and children are recruited and forced to loot, mutilate, and kill.
Many of these conflicts are fought, not between countries, but within them. They are fought, not by trained soldiers on a battlefield, but, for the most part, by civilians in cities, towns, and villages. Because much of the fighting is done by those with no military training, there are few compunctions about violating traditional rules of war. Consequently, vicious attacks on unarmed men, women, and children are commonplace. It is believed that in today’s wars more than 90 percent of those killed are civilians. In such wars small arms and light weapons play a major role.
Of course, guns do not directly cause conflict—humans fought long before gunpowder was invented. However, stockpiles of guns may encourage fighting rather than negotiation. Weapons may tend to lengthen the duration of wars and intensify the carnage.
While the weapons used in today’s wars are light, they have brought heavy consequences. During the 1990’s, such weapons killed more than four million people. Over 40 million others have become either refugees or displaced persons. Small arms have crippled war-torn societies politically, socially, economically, and environmentally. The cost to the international community in emergency relief, refugee care, peacekeeping, and military intervention has been tens of billions of dollars.
Why have small arms come to play such a major role in modern conflict? Where do they come from? What might be done to limit or eliminate their lethal impact? We will consider these questions in the following articles.
a The term “small arms” refers to rifles and handguns—weapons that can be held by one person; the expression “light weapons” includes machine guns, mortars, and grenade launchers, which sometimes require two people to handle.
[Picture Credit Line on page 3]
UN PHOTO 186797/J. Isaac