MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Amid stalls selling tomatoes and live chickens at the Bakhar Market, a jarring cry pierces the clatter. "Guns for sale! You need a gun?" asks a teenage boy, pointing to rows of Kalashnikov assault rifles hanging like sides of beef in wooden kiosks along the dusty, rutted street.
After two customers test-fire some of the displayed merchandise, a slightly used Russian-made AK-47 with a well-oiled muzzle and polished wood butt changes hands for $200.
Artist Wallis Kendal puts the finishing touches on his gun sculpture entitled 'The Art of Peacemaking' at United Nations headquarters Sunday, July 8, 2001. The exhibit will open Monday on the first day of the U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)
"The Kalashnikov is a weapon all fighters love. It will shoot whether it's covered in mud or filled with sand. It's so easy, even a child can use it," said Ali Stilla, an arms dealer and father of three.
A decade after the end of the Cold War, the Kalashnikov assault rifle is one thing Soviet that hasn't been relegated to the dustbin of history.
This simple 9-pound amalgamation of forged steel, molded plastic and wooden parts -- and millions of small arms like it -- are considered by arms-control experts to be a global threat with devastating long-term consequences, in the same league with nuclear and chemical weapons.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls small arms "weapons of mass destruction in slow motion." The issues of how small arms threaten communities around the world will be discussed at a United Nations General Assembly conference scheduled to begin today.
"Their proliferation is one of the key challenges in preventing conflict in the next century," Annan said in prepared remarks for the conference.
More than any other type of weapon, assault rifles have "changed the face of war in Africa" and other developing countries, said Peter Marwa, a retired Kenyan army colonel turned arms analyst.
Assault rifles and other small arms -- a definition that includes rifles, hand-held rocket launchers, machine guns and pistols -- are responsible for 90 percent of all conflict-related deaths in the last decade, a number equal to about 3 million people, according to the International Red Cross.
The most widely used of these weapons, according to arms-control analysts, is the AK-47 and its variants. About 50 million of these guns are in circulation throughout the world, enough to arm half of all U.S. households.
These economy-class weapons fuel economy-class wars common in Somalia and other developing nations. They also spur the global illegal-arms market. Under international conventions, legal arms sales occur only between two national governments, while rebel organizations usually involved in today's low-level conflicts are barred from buying guns through open channels.
So, although the United States is by far the world's leading source for legal weapons, with annual arms sales totaling about $12 billion, the bulk of illegal weapons sales come from former Soviet-bloc countries where the Kalashnikov is produced, according to law enforcement officials and arms traffickers. Most of the weapons used in fighting from the Balkans to Colombia have come from Russia and former Soviet satellite states.
Expectations are low about what will be accomplished at the U.N. conference. International sanctions and other multinational legal efforts to halt sales have had little effect against the extensive and shadowy trade in black-market arms.
But the implications for regional conflicts around the globe are clear, as are the tragic results for civilians trapped by years of war.
A team of Cox Newspapers correspondents traveled to 12 countries on five continents to trace small arms sold illegally from the former Soviet Union and the effects of their proliferation. What they uncovered was an alarming lack of control over small-arms stockpiles in the former Soviet bloc and the brazenness of arms traffickers who control the business. There is a shortage of political will to stem the trade and a surplus of human pain because of it.
Thanks to the end of the Cold War, supplies of small arms and weapons of mass destruction have never been greater, and procuring these weapons has never been easier.
During the heady, anything-goes chaos that characterized the breakup of the Soviet Union, many with access to conventional weapons scrambled to get a piece of the illegal-arms market, estimated at $8 billion annually, equivalent to one-fourth the total global arms trade.
The days when superpower patrons shipped weapons to client states in exchange for political loyalty waned. With a mercenary view of the open market, ex-Soviet entrepreneurs quickly organized global businesses in which arms could be swapped for a one-off payment in drugs, diamonds or cash.
Local military commanders became the linchpin of this black market in the early 1990s, when plans to reorganize the Soviet army into national militaries for each of the newly independent states disintegrated into chaos. Many officers quit in disgust, not knowing to whom their loyalties should remain, Mother Russia or new governments in places such as Kazakstan and Ukraine. Amid the organizational holes, those who stayed found themselves in control of huge caches of weapons.
"Imagine what an enterprising soul could do in the confusion," said Moscow-based arms analyst Sergei Matvienko. "In Soviet times, all numbers concerning weapons numbers and locations had been kept in Moscow, and suddenly, overnight, Moscow was located in a foreign country. No one there cared about the stockpiles in Kazakstan, for example, and no one in Kazakstan would ever know what had been in the stockpiles, let alone if anything were missing."
Arms ended up in the hands of hundreds of private security groups in Russia and Eastern Europe that had been organized to protect an emerging class of wealthy businessmen. They also were bought by rebels from Chechnya to Colombia who valued AK-47s, mobile anti-aircraft launchers, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and low-caliber ammunition for their low cost and portability.
By in the mid-1990s, the business of stealing from stockpiles matured into a more tightly organized black market. It was led by savvy, Russian-speaking men who could cash in on their connections in the ex-Soviet military and in countries where it once had influence.
How could the continued plundering of Soviet stockpiles of small weapons pass virtually unnoticed and unpunished?
Secrecy and corruption are to blame, said Sergei Fedkin, the acting head of Russia's Interior Ministry department for combating illegal-arms trade and terrorism.
"I'm supposed to report on the state of the Defense Ministry stockpiles, but I have no access either to the stockpiles or to full statistics from the Defense Ministry," he said in an interview at his Moscow office. "They give me a number of weapons every month that they say are unaccounted for. But never have I been given information about how many weapons exist in the stockpiles or how many stockpiles there are."
Statistics are elusive in the former Soviet Union, as they were in the days when the Communists ruled. Numbers often are conjured up out of thin air to satisfy political whims or to fulfill, at least on paper, unrealistic economic plans. Arms production is no different.
Goskomsat, the successor agency to the Soviet statistics agency, says the number of small arms produced by the Soviet Union is still classified. The Russian Defense Ministry and the state arms-export agency Rosoboronexport say the same is true of post-Soviet production. No Russian or U.S. think tank knows the answer. Military attaches in Moscow say they don't either.
In fact, none of the arms-controls treaties and military cooperation agreements signed between Moscow and Western capitals requires small arms to be counted, according to arms-control experts.
"The West was worried about nuclear missiles, tanks and aircraft, not hand-held weapons," explained Dosim Sapayev, an analyst from the International War and Peace Institute, a London-based think tank.
Without accurate statistics, there can be no adequate controls. And without adequate controls, corruption flourishes and arms transfers are easily carried out under a veil of secrecy.
Such a case occurred in February, when the Anastasia, a freighter flying the flag of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, set sail from the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Oktyabarskii and docked at Spain's Canary Islands to refuel.
Its manifest said it was carrying auto parts, but the destination was illegible. Intrigued, the port authority demanded access to the ship to inspect the cargo. What they found was 650 tons of assault rifles, ammunition and infantry gear.
After Spanish authorities complained, Russia's Rosoboronexport claimed the shipment was part of a legal sale from Moscow to Angola, thus giving the Anastasia a green light to leave port once the ship's captain had paid a small fine. After its departure, Spanish officials said they had no legal basis to monitor its journey, and the ship's owners could not be found in the Georgian town where it was registered.
Rosoboronexport officials, agreeing to talk only after the ship had sailed, told Cox Newspapers that the details of the deal were "a commercial secret." When pressed whether the sale was to the government of Angola or the rebel group UNITA, the agency refused further comment. The group is under international sanctions, which makes arms shipments illegal.
Not surprisingly, the main destinations for Kalashnikov rifles are developing nations in which central governments are weak, civil conflict is rife, and rule of law is thin, at best.
Of course, not all small-arms transfers are illegal, and not all weapons fall into the wrong hands. But all too often, the proliferation of small arms is detrimental for citizens of the countries where they end up, aid officials say.
"The results have been horrendous," said Marwa, of the Bonn International Center for Conversion and International Resource Group, a German arms-control organization.
Weary aid officials recite a litany of ills caused by easy access to small arms: Psychological horrors experienced by child soldiers, loss of productivity because of a maimed and wounded work force, public money spent on arms instead of education and health care.
Somalia shows the vexing realities of a country overrun by guns and those who have ruled by the gun. For now, it's a climate that not only tolerates places like the Bakhar Market, but also makes them seem necessary to the population . Suppliers are only half of the problem.
"For Bakhar to shut down, we need to see a change in attitude about fighting. Only if there is no more conflict will there be no more guns," Abdiqasim Salad Hasan, the president of Somalia's transitional government, told Cox Newspapers.
Copyright 2001 Cox Newspapers