In any war there are a thousand things shaping what is happening. Political calculation, displacement, weather, memory and grievance, exchange rates, magic, logistics. On and on, from a refugee’s Western Union transfer to the war song sung by a soldier’s wife. So why do weapons matter in understanding a war? Why look at the instruments of violence when there’s so much else that’s important going on?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years looking at weapons; looking for them; handling them and their remnants; speaking with the people using them and supplying them. For all this effort, I don’t always have a good answer to the question. One straightforward answer is that war-fighting matters in war. Even if our primary concern is humanitarian – the usually catastrophic impact of armed violence on human beings – the experience and impact of war is fundamentally shaped by the nature and dynamics of that war’s violence. And that violence is fundamentally shaped by weapons: who has and doesn’t have them, where they come from, how they get there, how they’re used and misused. Refugee camp managers should know what a D-30 is.

A more oblique answer is that weapons carry information. Often, of course, they carry the marks of their makers. But they also pick up more information as they get passed from hand to hand, down supply lines and across front lines. Perhaps more than any other objects in a war, they are fetishized, modified and personalised. Guns are palimpsests. Read carefully, even the most generic weapons can tell you something about their owners’ political, military and economic ties; who they themselves are; what they can do; and sometimes what they want.

This gun is a good example. It was captured last year from fighters of the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) in Mankien – a small South Sudanese town close to the border with (North) Sudan.

Amongst the alphabet soup of South Sudan’s armed groups, the SSLA are something of a puzzle. A loose alliance of fighters loyal to a grouping of former South Sudanese military commanders who left the southern army (the SPLA) after a disputed election in 2010, they remain in a simmering hit-and-run conflict with the SPLA that killed and displaced hundreds of people during 2011 across a swathe of South Sudan’s restive northeast.

Their leaders – at least those who sign their communiqués and deliver their forewarnings of attack on state radio phone-ins – are mainly from the Nuer group of tribes, arguably marginalized in South Sudan’s Dinka-dominated political settlement. Although most have served as SPLA officers since 2005, they have complex individual and communal relationships with the southern liberation movement that finally won South Sudan’s independence last year. Most spent the late 1990s and early 2000s with their own militias criss-crossing Unity State’s prized oilfields, repeatedly swapping sides as both southern rebels and northern army sought to exploit and manipulate local support. The result was some of the most violent episodes of the second Sudanese Civil War, with entire communities caught in the middle.

The SSLA’s fighters are equally ambiguous. Ask the government of South Sudan about the SSLA, and the unequivocal response is that they are Khartoum’s proxies: troops armed and backed by the north, sent over the border to destabilise the nascent southern nation and jeopardise its oil. The long spells spent in north Sudan by SSLA commanders like Baphiny Monteiul – interviewed by the BBC in Khartoum in December – do little to dispel this assessment. By contrast some residents of Mayom County, the centre of the SSLA’s rebellion, will tell you that the SSLA are simply ‘sons of Mayom’: local protectors of their Bul Nuer communities against the depredations of an out-of-control SPLA and its Dinka masters.

What can we learn about the SSLA from this rifle?

First off, it’s a Type 56-1: a Chinese-made copy of the famous Kalashnikov assault rifle. This actually tells us very little. Type 56s are the Ford Fiestas of assault rifles. Cheap, robust, light, short and highly portable with their simple under-folding butt-stock, compatible with the 7.62x39mm ammunition found almost everywhere, and churned in their millions from Chinese factories since the 1970s, they are amongst the most ubiquitous and anonymous of weapons in east Africa. They are found in the hands of the Sudanese Armed Forces and allied militias, their southern opponents in the SPLA, Ugandan and Kenyan armed forces, and armed communities from northern Kenya to north Sudan. Type 56s are now probably more common in Africa than the Soviet-bloc Kalashnikovs delivered to every Cold War proxy conflict since the 1950s, and in perhaps greater numbers in the 1990s when semi-private dealers famously cleaned out Eastern European state stockpiles after the collapse of communism. This shift in the ecology of African arms from Eastern European to East Asian species tells us something global about the international arms market, but at the level of an individual weapon Chinese rifles are now so prevalent that their Chinese origin doesn’t narrow down their precise provenance or former owners.

What is clear is that this rifle isn’t new. It’s almost certainly had more than one user. And like all the other rifles in the batch seized in Mankien, at some point in its probably varied history someone has tried to obscure its origin – scraping off the factory and type markings on its receiver that would prominently identify it as a Chinese-manufactured rifle.

This may mean that the rifle moved at some point from another state or stockpile to a rebel force, with those responsible wishing to conceal its provenance. But we will probably never be able to trace its original ‘licit’ purchaser. It’s almost certain that the manufacturer and purchaser records simply don’t exist.

In spite of its lost parentage, though, this rifle isn’t an orphan. It seems to be part of a batch, its unique serial number (48-38521) corresponding with other ‘48’ series Type 56 rifles amongst the seized weapons from Mankien; amongst those seized from SSLA and allied rebel groups elsewhere in South Sudan; and, significantly, in the hands of the SPLA’s own forces in Unity State. It seems plausible, in fact, that this rifle was at some point in SPLA stocks – whether acquired by them from a friendly government or client arms supplier, seized from Khartoum’s troops in battle, or even perhaps recycled into SPLA stocks from the joint SAF/SPLA units formed under the 2005 peace agreement between the two forces. The matching numbers on their own aren’t concrete proof of SPLA provenance: there are presumably tens of thousands of ‘series 48’ Type 56s. But similarities between SPLA and SSLA weapons do support accounts given by SSLA personnel and Mayom County residents, who say that the SSLA draw most of their fighters from local SPLA units themselves, which may have been taken over to the SSLA by their officers. Far from Juba, and operating within a fractured, personality-driven command structure, whether you’re fighting on any given day with the state army or the opposition rebels may depend purely on the shifting whims of your immediate commanders. Whatever South Sudan’s government may say about the SSLA being Khartoum’s shock troops, some SSLA soldiers captured by the SPLA don’t even know they’re not still in the SPLA.

As you can see from this picture, this gun has also been pimped, in a fashion. Someone has scratched ‘2PAC’ and ‘WEST COST’ onto the foregrip (in Latin letters, not the Arabic script that would be used by most – though not all – literate members of Khartoum’s troops). These tags connote much more local connections. They’re the borrowed names of South Sudanese youth gangs – self-styled ‘nigger boys’ – that have spread across South Sudan’s cities since the end of the second Civil War in 2005. Their names are everywhere on walls and street signs in Unity State’s capital, Bentiu, usually next to a simple slogan: ‘Fuck You’. That ‘Fuck You’ seems to sum up pretty eloquently the collision of two disappointments: South Sudan’s macho young men’s world of guns and cattle camps, an asset during the Second Civil War and a natural fit with hip hop gangsta bravado afterwards, but now being turned on by authorities fearful about the moral degeneration of the post-Civil War youth; and the larger broken promises of the ‘peace’. Young South Sudanese, whether brought up in the diaspora or directly under the hum of Khartoum’s Antonov bombers during the 1990s, were taught to expect unshakeably that free South Sudan, when it came, would be overflowing with milk, honey, new roads, jobs for all. Instead, like the aftermaths of so many civil wars, there’s been no peace dividend; shockingly little economic development in the seven years since the peace agreement; simmering violence and the real prospect of return to full-blown civil war. If they’re extremely lucky, probably the very best that most South Sudanese young men can hope for is that they might become a driver for the NGO circus in Juba. If it helps them to say ‘Fuck You’ to the elders who seem to have forgotten them, and in some cases to have declared social war on them, why wouldn’t they join a gang, or the SPLA, or a militia, or all three?

The scrawled words on this gun’s fore-grip support the testimony of many in Unity State’s Bul Nuer community that most of the SSLA’s foot-soldiers (or those of the SPLA units from which they may have defected) are not shock troops from Khartoum or South Kordofan over the border. They’re just local boys, with almost unimaginably limited options. Sometimes there may be no option at all. During 2011 the SPLA and police in Bentiu and its garrison town twin, Rubkhona, have been conducting intermittent sweeps for ‘niggers’ – cordoning off markets and arresting those suspected of nigger gang membership – often those who wear their trousers low or are insolent to officials. This kind of paranoid counter-insurgency against children is now a familiar part of European urban policing. In South Sudan, it can have a more serious outcome. Youths and others in Bentiu claim that the boys arrested in these sweeps sometimes find themselves forcibly in the SPLA, and sent to the frontlines against the SSLA and the northern armed forces in the west and north of the state; although local officials themselves insist that only those ‘niggers’ found to be actually in the SPLA or the police service are ‘returned to service’ in this way.

This gun is looking more and more like the weapon of a very local conflict indeed. But before we write the SSLA off as just another local militia, let’s have a look at their bullets. When I take out the magazine of this gun, and all the others in the captured batch, there’s a surprise. All are filled with a single type of well-greased ammunition stamped with a 2010 manufacture date and markings consistent with manufacture in north Sudan. This ammunition, which matches the bullets used by the Sudanese Armed Forces including in Darfur, is totally different to the much older, mainly Russian-made steel-cased rounds I’ve seen in the Kalashnikovs of the SPLA here in unity State and elsewhere in South Sudan. It has evidently been made available to this SSLA unit in generous quantities (it’s unusual to find rebel groups using just a single type of ammunition, still less a type that is practically brand new). It’s so recently manufactured that although we can’t tell for sure what its supply route was to the SSLA, it’s likely to have been pretty direct. Accounts from former SSLA members themselves about direct Sudanese government arms drops to their rear bases are starting to seem more plausible. If the government of South Sudan is looking for Khartoum’s fingerprints on the SSLA’s rebellion, this is as close as they are likely to get.

At least three layers of conflict are written on this most unremarkable of rifles. There’s the local disaffection of the local young men who almost certainly make up the SSLA’s footsoldiers: not ideological rebels but boys from nearby Mayom County, being recycled with varying degrees of commitment and coercion through Unity State’s various groups of men with guns. There’s the Nuer ‘civil war’, with South Sudanese strongmen across the region flipping the affiliation of their personal armies – and their weapons – in and out of the SPLA for personal advantage or decade-old communal grievance. And, beyond all the rumour and accusation, there’s the very real hidden hand of an international standoff here, with north Sudan arming southern proxies, however local in origin, in a mounting border conflict that has, since I saw this rifle, almost returned to a full-blown international war.

None of these signs are entirely decipherable without a lot of context. Without looking at dozens of other weapons. Without talking to the men using them and the communities where they’re used. And without moving through the landscape, political and geographical, where these guns are used. But reading this rifle helps join the dots, backs up suppositions, helps to fill in the gaps of a portrait that we’re trying to draw, in the dark, with our eyes closed.

Personally I hate weapons. But if we want them to be used less, simply trying to stem their supply isn’t going to work. We need to know who the people holding them are, and what they want. And sometimes the answers are written obliquely on guns, bombs and bullets themselves.

Photographs made by author in Unity State, South Sudan, 24th January 2012.

Worth mentioning that much of the inspiration for this post comes from C.J. Chivers – it’s a weak imitation of his incomparable blog on weapons at war. Chivers breaks the arms research rule ‘never draw conclusions from a single gun’ with aplomb, and results. See for example his elegant ‘arms trade isotope’ theory at work off the coast of Somalia.

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