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November 15, 2012

In Mozambique, transforming guns into art

MAPUTO, Mozambique — Whenever Goncalo Mabunda looks at his sculptures, he wonders if any of his materials killed his uncle, a government soldier who was shot to death during Mozambique's 15-year civil war. Mabunda's sculptures are made from the bullets and rifles that fueled the conflict.

"Portions of my family, my neighbors, they all died in the war," said Mabunda, 37, glancing at a sculpture made out of a rusting AK-47 and a helmet that hangs on his wall. "How many people were killed with these weapons? This might be the one that killed some of my relatives."

Mabunda is one of dozens of artists in this southern African capital who are transforming weapons into sculptures, playing a role in preventing a resurrection of violence and instability in one of the continent's fastest growing economies. The sculptures have attracted international attention, with pieces shown in galleries in New York, Osaka, London and other cities. The Clinton Foundation and the Vatican have purchased some of Mabunda's sculptures.

The project, launched in 1995 by the Christian Council of Mozambique, had two goals: to bring peace and reconciliation to the country's divided population and to disarm the thousands of combatants who participated in the war, which left more than a million people dead. Now, two decades after a peace deal was signed, the project remains as relevant as ever. As the divide between rich and poor expands, and as businessmen and the politically connected scramble for the country's mineral wealth, many Mozambicans fear that violence could be used to rectify inequalities and advance political ambitions.

"It has been 20 years of peace, but we're still finding lots of guns. Guns are still a threat to our society," said Nicolau Luis, assistant director for the project at the Christian Council. "Our resources can become a curse. High unemployment can breed resentment. If we can cleanse our country of guns, it will be good for our future."

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