Complexities of a Simple Weapon
The death this week of Mikhail Kalashnikov, creator of the AK-47, which the Washington Post calls “the world’s most omnipresent weapon, used by national armies, terrorists, drug gangs, bank robbers, revolutionaries and Jihadists” made me think about my own three encounters with this gun.
The last time I saw an AK-47 it was pointed at me.
It was the late 1990s. I was in Zaire for National Geographic and I was getting arrested. I was accompanying a group of Zairian refugees who were being repatriated to their homeland (Zaire is now called Congo). The writer, his wife and I were on a UN ship traveling from Tanzania. We carried papers signed by the proper authorities. But as white journalists we stood out like sore thumbs. The ship docked, we walked ashore and Zairian soldiers, all carrying AK-47s, surrounded us.
The soldier performing the arrest was not a large person. But he suffered from what I call the “small man with big gun” syndrome. I see that affliction not only in Africa but also here in the United States. It affects people who feel insecure. They use guns to show the world how big they are. In some situations this behavior might seem pitiful or even ridiculous. This wasn’t that kind of situation—I was facing a small and agitated man who was yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand and waving what looked like a well-used automatic weapon in my face.
Actually, that was the second time I’d had an AK-47 pointed at me. A few years earlier, in 1993, I was working in Sierra Leone on a story about Lassa Fever. I was traveling with a medical team when our vehicle reached a checkpoint. This one happened to be in a beautiful location offering an incredible view of nearby mountains. One of the staffers suggested that I take a picture. I’m not sure why I agreed. At checkpoints, it’s always a bad idea to take pictures. But moving in a kind of idiotic trance I raised my camera. Within seconds, I had the barrel of a gun in my face and I was arrested, along with the two medical staffers. We drove to police headquarters with the solider arresting us—another small man—sitting in the back seat. I stole occasional glances behind me and could see him alternately pointing his AK-47 at the back of my head or the back of the driver’s head. Thankfully as we bounced along the rough dirt road he kept his finger off the trigger. At the police station he marched us before his commander, eager to show off his prize. Luckily for my two African colleagues and me his commander was not interested in us. As in Zaire, we were eventually released, grateful that we had literally dodged the bullet.
My third AK-47 encounter fell between the two frightening African episodes. In 1994 I was in Saigon, photographing a story on the Vietnamese economy, which at the time was just opening up to foreign investment. The Vietnamese Army held a fundraiser. For $1.00 per bullet, foreigners could fire an AK-47. I bought one bullet. Under the watchful of a soldier I shouldered the weapon aiming at the target. I lightly squeezed the trigger. There was a loud bang and a slight kick to my shoulder. I missed the target.
Of course, most AK-47s aren’t used for fundraisers. More that 100 million of these automatic weapons have been built in countries around the world since Mikhail Kalashnikov first developed it in the 1940s for the Russian Army. With only eight moving parts, the Kalashnikov earned a reputation for simplicity and effectiveness, offering the fully automatic fire of a machine gun and requiring minimal care. The North Vietnamese used AK-47s like the one I fired when they fought US troops in the Vietnam War. It was considered a more reliable weapon than the M-16s issued to Americans.
Yet while it is an impressive feat of military engineering, I have to believe that easy access to cheap, reliable and extremely deadly weapons like the AK-47 is a big contributor to the decades-long conflicts plaguing the developing world. It’s ironic that Mr. Kalashnikov made a sturdy easy to use weapon to help the soldiers of his Russian homeland, but in the end, that became the weapon of choice for warring parties in underdeveloped countries. Would post-Cold War conflicts scattered around the globe continue as long, with casualties as high if efficient killing devices like the AK-47 were complex, unreliable and expensive?
Sadly, another developing world conflict is unfolding right now in South Sudan. Almost three years ago, shortly before the vote that established South Sudan as a country, Catholic Relief Services sent me there to photograph peace. The assignment was both simple and complicated. Could I show “What does peace look like in South Sudan?”
It was one of the best assignments I ever had, not because it produced award-winning photos (though several did win awards), but because I had the opportunity to capture the lives of people who hoped they could finally live in peace once the new country of South Sudan was created. It was a wonderful and exciting time to be there. People felt that fear of conflict was finally behind them. Refugees were returning to reclaim their lands and restart their lives. I met some of the nicest people I have ever photographed, warm and open to my camera. Being there seemed like a gift from God. I felt transformed.
So during this holiday season of peace and good will, to hear that South Sudan is again falling into conflict and bloodshed is highly distressing. What will happen to the many wonderful people I met? The young boy helping his mother wash clothes in a roadside ditch. Little Sandy whose mother is learning how to sew so she can support the family. The female community leader helping her village recover from the last conflict. The laughing girls getting water from the village pump without fear of being brutalized. The kindergarten children who warmly greet visitors while drinking their morning tea.
Of course, the causes of conflicts are complex and rooted in many issues, but again I can’t help but think that if Mr. Kalashnikov had not invented that sturdy, cheap and reliable weapon of choice of poor armies and rogue groups, these types of conflicts would be slower to start and harder to carry out. Mr. Kalashnikov once said if there had not been a war at the time he invented his legendary gun, he might have gone on to improve farm equipment. I wonder how the world might be different had he done that. At the end of the Washington Post article he says, “I created a weapon…it’s not my fault that it was sometimes used where it should have not have been. That is the fault of politicians.” That same tired old line that “guns don’t kill—people do.” Humans have always found ways to kill each other. But can you imagine how the dynamics of warfare in places like South Sudan would be if people only had hoes or clubs rather than a weapon that reliably fires and kills multiple times within seconds.