(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Guns-for-hire legacy of Angolan war

Readily available weapons as a result of neighbouring Angola's long civil war have spawned a new security problem for communities in western Zambia: contract killers.

The Karavinas, as they are known, can be hired to settle scores as minor as a domestic dispute or a suspicion of witchcraft. They are paid in cash or livestock for the grisly service.

After 27 years of civil war across the border in Angola, Zambia's Western and North Western provinces are awash with weapons. In the districts of Kaoma, Kalabo, Lukulu, Shang'ombo and Mongu, an AK-47 assault rifle can cost the equivalent of 10 kg of maize.

Fear of the Karavinas is disrupting communities, forcing some - especially the elderly, anxious that they may be identified as sorcerers - to leave their villages for larger towns.

"It takes many days for police to respond to our problems and cries. We are now living in fear of Karavinas, who are hunting humans instead of animals," Chinjenge Kaloza, a local councillor in Nalikwanda constituency, Western Province, told IRIN.

Since last year there have been media reports of killings and people fleeing their homes in western Zambia. The government finally recognised the extent of the problem recently when home affairs minister Ronnie Shikapwasha warned that the army would be used to crack down on illegal firearms.

"The situation is critical. When I go to my constituency I have to get protection from the police," said Liuwa MP Bataba Wamulume, who represents an area on the border with Angola.

Nalikwanda MP Simasiku Kalumiana blamed the insecurity on the influx of Angolan refugees over the years, saying they had sold weapons to locals. The word 'Karavina' is believed to be a corruption of a Portuguese term for rifle.

There appears to be little distinction between contract killing and pure banditry in the reported activity of the Karavinas.

"In Liuwa, people walk seven days to Kalabo because people are too scared of Karavinas to own shops ... [and] people who own cattle are being attacked," Wamulume said.

In Sikongo, a constituency in Kalabo district, MP Best Makumba said Karavinas trailed and waylaid farmers who had sold their cattle to Zambeef Meat products in Mongu, the provincial capital of Western Province.

In January this year, police in Kabompo, a rural town in North Western Province, arrested the alleged leader of a Karavina group said to have murdered several - mostly elderly - people in the region, who had been accused of witchcraft.

The man, locally known as Chamwinu Chabakwenzi ("saviour of young ones" in the Luvale language), was believed to have been paid by youths for the murders.

"You know, in these areas there is a no ordinary death - they strongly believe that any death of a young person is caused by witchcraft. So, many people have been killed by hired killers on such suspicions," said North Western Province police chief, Innocent Kalebwe.

"We tried to infiltrate the villages, but we could not capture the suspects because they were liked by the young, who believe the hired killers save their lives. Even if they knew where the suspect was, they would not reveal to police," Kalebwe added.

The police have scored some successes against the gunmen. In a recent operation in Kabompo they arrested more than 20 suspected Karavinas and recovered about 36 weapons.

"The officers are committed to reducing crime and, so far, some groups have been dismantled after the arrests," said Kabompo district commissioner, Titus Chipimpa.

The problem of the Karavinas is universally blamed on the Angolan war. In the last few years of the conflict, the UNITA rebel movement was hard-pressed in the eastern province of Moxico, and an influx of refugees and UNITA soldiers entered Zambia.

Kinship ties also exist between communities on both sides of the border, and weapons were said to have been exchanged for food and clothes.

Although a reward for the surrender of firearms was introduced in 2001, the bounty was slashed by half to just US $22 by a cash-strapped Ministry of Home Affairs and, reportedly, even that amount was rarely paid.

Unfortunately, the promise of a weapons buy-back had persuaded people to bring in even more weapons from Angola, police in Mongu told IRIN.

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