Pistols, rifles, machine guns and mines that spread terror across Mozambique during years of civil war have been transformed from agents of death and destruction into art, winning hearts at home and abroad.
People have been encouraged to hand over weapons in exchange for sewing machines, agricultural tools, construction materials or bicycles. After the weapons had been put out of action, some of the pieces have been used to make strikingly original sculptures.
“We decided to collect [the guns] so they cannot be used in crime or other violent incidents,” said Anglican Bishop Dinis Sengulane, fingering his own small cross made from a gun barrel.
Sengulane is president of Mozambique’s Christian Council, which started the “Transforming Arms into Tools” project in 1995. Since then, it says it has collected around 60,000 guns from former combatants in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Mozambique’s civil war ended in 1992, but left a deadly legacy. During the years of violence, guns flooded into the former Portuguese colony. Christian Aid estimates there are some seven million guns hidden in the country.
“There were many guns in the hands of people and a gun is a very bad adviser,” said Sengulane.
One of the most famous works created from the collected arms is the “Throne of Weapons,” a chair made from Portuguese rifles and Russian AK-47 assault rifles in the style of the traditional African throne for elders.
The throne was displayed in the British Museum in London this year along with the 9.8-foot “Tree of Life,” also made from chopped-up weapons.
Mozambique’s bloody history has provided plenty of raw materials. After Mozambique won independence from Portugal after years of conflict in 1975, civil war broke out and only ended in 1992 with a pact between the Frelimo government and rebel Renamo movement, now the biggest opposition party.
“We could use other materials, but guns give more meaning because we talk about peace by destroying its opposite,” said Cristovao Canhavato, who created the “Throne of Weapons.”
One way to leave the past behind
Canhavato — who works under the name Kester and is a member of Nucleo de Arte, the oldest collective of artists in Mozambique — started making sculptures from decommissioned weapons in 1997.
“Making art with guns ... creates more expectations, is thought-provoking and has awakened many people to our history and to what we can learn from it,” he said.
Religious leaders say the gun art project has convinced many former combatants to hand in their weapons, cutting crime rates.
The project also reflects Mozambique’s desire to put its bloody past behind — and it has made some progress.
The economy has grown by an average of 10 percent over the last decade and market reforms have attracted big business in mining and energy. The former Marxist country has won praise from institutions like the World Bank.
But Mozambique still struggles with the legacy of war, seen in the landmines that dot the countryside and the widespread availability of guns.
Changing the 'gun mentality'
“When we go to different communities we still find guns there,” said Jorge Samuel, a project director for the Christian Council who distributes tools in exchange for weapons.
Samuel says that while his project aims to take weapons out of circulation, its main goal is to transform the “gun mentality” that breeds violence and crime.
“To change minds would be a bigger victory, a bigger gain than collecting guns,” he said.
Sengulane, who played an important role in the peace talks that ended the civil war, said the problem extended beyond Mozambique to include countries that manufactured and sold weapons, feeding the culture of violence.
“There lies the importance of this project, to try to cement peace,” he said.
Crackdown helping neighbors
Mozambique has also sought help from neighbor South Africa to track down its millions of concealed weapons.
In October, authorities blew up around 3,400 rifles, mines, rocket launchers and other ordnance as part of a joint operation with South Africa to prevent weapons from reaching criminals.
Police say the crackdown is having an effect.
“We used to see groups of heavily armed burglars but now we have more cases of threats with people wielding toy guns or only one member armed, sometimes without munitions,” Mozambique Police Commissioner Custodio Zandamenla said.
Police in South Africa, which has one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, say Mozambique’s efforts to rid the country of guns is having a positive effect across the border.
“Ten to 11 years ago you could easily buy an AK-47 at the border for less than 100 rand ($15). Now you will pay 20,000 rand to 30,000 rand in the streets of South Africa,” said South African police officer Arno Lamoer.
“There still is demand, but the supply is gone.”