“I fired my first gunshot when I was nine,” says Salih. “For years after that I was very eager to do it again. I owned my first weapon when I got to 14. It was an AK-47.”
Salih is now 38, but guns have been a permanent fixture in his life. Growing up in Darfur in one of the Arab tribes that has been at war with other ethnic groups in the region since 2003, he says it quickly became clear the only way to protect his family was to get a weapon of his own.
In the 13 years since war broke out, the UN estimates that more than 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur. Amid the ongoing violent clashes, weapons continue to flow in from neighbouring countries to meet the demand.
Salih, who declined to give his full name, estimates that “in the past, only two or three people in every group of shepherds had a Kalashnikov. Now every member of every group has at least two weapons.” Other types of automatic weapons, such as Soviet-era PK machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, are also freely available, he says.
Although it is widely accepted that the situation has drastically deteriorated, there isn’t any accurate data on the proliferation of weapons across the state.
In December, the Sudanese interior ministry released a report estimating there are “millions of small arms and light weapons in the hands of citizens in Darfur”, but said the chaos of war had prevented the collection of accurate statistics.
Emile LeBrun, Sudanese project leader of the Small Arms Survey, says the UN set up an expert panel to establish where the guns are coming from but its findings were blocked, reportedly by Russia.
LeBrun says the Khartoum government, under the leadership of Omar al-Bashir,who has been indicted for war crimes in Darfur, is unable to assess or regulate the flow of guns because it cannot “cannot elicit the required trust and compliance of populations that is required for disarmament”.
For locals, this distrust is fuelled by what they see as a disingenuous disarmament drive. Fatima Ali, from El-Geneina in western Darfur, points out that while the government has been collecting weapons from some tribes it has been consistently arming others. “That’s why citizens do not trust the government,” she says.
The interior ministry says it has ambitions to introduce more regulation and has planned a gun registration initiative. Esmat Abdel Majid, the minister of the interior, said recently that his office had plans to “collect heavy weapons, such as SUVs and heavy cannons. We plan as well to restrict and register small arms. We will then collect them in exchange for financial compensation.”
But LeBrun says that there is no way to verify how effective registration drives really are. “[The government has] supposedly registered 20,000 weapons in South and West Darfur – but there is no way to verify this number and it should be treated with scepticism,” the researcher said.
On the ground in Darfur’s numerous weapons markets, traders say restrictions will not affect sales, and that they will continue “selling to anyone who will pay” regardless of the planned restrictions.
One trader, who asked to remain anonymous, said that at present “Kalashnikovs cost 7,000 Sudanese pounds (£701)” – only a little more expensive than in previous years. He explained that the weapons flood in from neighbouring countries, or that traders “sometimes raid other groups or the Unamid [African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur] troops to take their guns.”
Hassan Mattar, a former fighter with the Sudan Liberation Movement in Darfur, says that many of the older guns in circulation come from Libya.
“The one who brought most weapons to Darfur is former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, first when he supported the Sudanese opposition in Darfur in 1976, and then when he supplied the Chadian opposition in 1980s,” says Mattar. “He also provided support to armed movements in the beginning of the insurgency in Darfur in 2003.”
Khalid Bahar, a Darfuri activist, says the widespread prevalence of weapons has contributed to a dangerous climate of wanton violence. “The situation is more dangerous. First you hear gunshots, then hundreds of young men die and the battles begin,” he says.
Many residents, tired of being surrounded by weapons and the threat of violence, are leaving. “I sent my wife and little children to Khartoum to live there,” says Salih. “I will never let my children grow here, I want them to be better than me.”