In The Line Of Fire

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MAKING PEACE [image, unknown] Proxy wars

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In the line of fire
Brian Walker describes how arms traders and the superpowers combine to fan the flames of small, local conflicts into major conflagrations.

'What a shame that our weapons get used this way!' CIVILIANS have always suffered in times of war. Regardless of how theologians have tried to sanction the ‘just’ war, it is the people who bear the brunt of the consequences. But at least in that outdated and ethically impractical concept, there was recognition that the innocent ought not to suffer. Today little or no attempt is made to protect them.

Where the interests of the two superpowers intrude into a region, indiscriminate ‘war by proxy’ becomes the order of the day. Conflict is fuelled by the arms trade and people become dispensable pawns in the subsequent power game.

Because Kampuchea in the early 1970s was regarded by Kissinger and Nixon as a sideshow of little consequence to their pursuit of wider strategies and ideological interests. so were the interests of people men. women and children— of no practical importance. And so they died. Thousands of them. Death rained out of the sky. The politicians used the pilots and the pilots had no option but to discharge their deadly, computer-targeted cargoes.

In 1979 Vietnam. by then the ‘conqueror of the American forces, was under pressure to respond to the halts a-million refugees who had fled into the country from the murderous Pol Pot. Vietnam invaded Kampuchea, to the relief of most Kampucheans. But four years later that war continues unabated, with America and China sustaining Pol Pot and his remnant forces and Russia and Eastern Europe supporting Vietnam. Trapped between are people: just ordinary people, who simply want a place in the sun.

The people had welcomed the Vietnamese as liberators: of that there is no question. I wonder what they are feeling today as the West and China continue to sustain the forces of Pol Pot with food, medical supplies, arms and ammunition’? And though Western governments denounce Pol Pot’s excesses, they still vote for him to retain his seat in the United Nations and urge that aid should not be sent to either Kampuchea or Vietnam.

In 1981 trekking through the Karamoja desert in Uganda, my guide suddenly asked me to stand still and wait until a Karamajong herdsman striding towards us from the far distance could reach our vantage point. I wondered why. Traditionally the Karamajong warrior carries only three things a piece of cloth to place across his shoulders to keep off the sun, a herdsman’ s staff to lean on and around which to wind one leg whilst watching his cattle and a wooden head rest.

When he reached us, I saw the problem. Slung incongruously over one shoulder was a modern, automatic rifle, whilst around his otherwise naked body was strapped a bandolier. stuffed with soft-nosed ‘dum-dum’ bullets.

When Idi Amin was toppled, 15.000 rifles and 150,000 rounds of soft-nosed bullets were pillaged from Amin’s armoury. One way or another, both the Ugandan Karamajong and the Kenyan Turkana across the border acquired the weapons. Now traditional raiding parties— once armed with bows and arrows and dependent on stealth, fleetness of foot and surprise — use automatic rifles with a three mile range. And in the Catholic hospital at Matany I saw the results. Down one side of the ward were the Karamajong: down the other side, six feet away, were their enemies, the Turkana: both smashed to pieces by dum-dum bullets. Arrows can be lethal but modern military technology imported from America, Britain. France and Russia is more lethal still.

A little earlier I had been travelling in Namibia and Angola, where South African troops were fighting the ‘forces of godless communism’, supplied with arms and ammunition by Cuba and Russia. A band of territory approximately a mile wide across the country had been ‘cleared’ by South African troops. ‘Cleared’ meant that everything had been razed to the ground —churches, schools, homes, farms, wells. cattle, trees, bushes. dykes — the lot. People were assaulted, beaten up and cast aside, losing all their worldly possessions before the eager teeth of the bulldozer. Arms manufacturers supplied both sides with weapons but kept safely out of the line of fire. Soldiers and civilians formed the front line. And the civilians suffered the most. Those to whom I spoke knew nothing about ‘communism’ or capitalism’: they just wanted to be left alone.

So long as disputes and conflicts are resolved by violent means. No-one is immune from the corrupting effects of war. Once war develops, everyone and everything is sucked into it. Aid agencies were certainly helping Pol Pot to remain active in 1979 by pouring aid across the Thai border into Western Kampuchen. During the struggle for independence in Zimbabwe, the liberation movements Zanu and Zapu were serviced by different aid agencies. Does this mean that aid agencies also become the sustainers of war?

It is too late to ask the question once war has started. The important task — and a permanent challenge — is to design and sustain institutions which prevent war from breaking out and to support men and women who work for the peaceful settlement of disputes.

We in the West may not have had a ‘real war on our own soil for almost 40 years. But wars by proxy continue, supplied by the arms traders — with America, Russia, France, Italy and Britain as the most successful salesmen, Local conflicts are seized upon by the superpowers and internationalized. Suffering escalates — but nothing is resolved. People’s lives are cheap: their homes become squares on a chessboard drenched in blood. It will only stop when enough people insist it must stop. Eventually and inevitably. with the development of small, tactical nuclear weapons, we shall all be drawn into the vortex if we do not make our voices heard.

Brian Walker is the Director General of OXFAM

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New Internationalist issue 121 magazine cover This article is from the March 1983 issue of New Internationalist.
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