The scourge of illegal guns

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MASERU — They arrived at Tiping a village in Thaba-Tseka on horseback on Thursday, armed to the teeth.

The six men said they were looking for a man who had assaulted one of their own sometime back.

Now they wanted nothing but revenge.

Police spokesman Masupha Masupha told the Lesotho Times this week that the men began shooting wildly when they spotted their target.

“They spotted the 26-year-old man and immediately accused him of beating one of their colleagues.

“They all took out firearms and started chasing and shooting at him,” Masupha said.

He said the man, who was also armed, somehow managed to escape and sought shelter in a nearby house.

He then began firing back at his attackers, Masupha said.

One horseman was left dead as a result of the shooting.

The 26-year-old sustained serious injuries on the arm.

“The men ran away as soon as they heard the police were on the way. Five of them ran away leaving behind one who was down due to injuries.

“They were later rushed to the clinic. The 26-year-old was given medical attention and an illegal 9mm firearm was confiscated from him.

“The other man was confirmed dead,” Masupha told a press briefing on Monday.

Reads like a typical Hollywood action movie?

Although statistics on gun violence in Lesotho are not readily available media reports paint a depressing picture of a nation at war with itself.

It would appear there is a small-scale civil war that is raging across the country. The police say illegal guns are flying around the country like toys.

Most of these guns are being smuggled into the country from South Africa, a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

The rise in illegal guns is probably to blame for the wave of murders and cases of armed robbery that we are seeing in the country, the police say.

The Lesotho Mounted Police Service in 2005 launched an ongoing campaign dubbed Operation Zero Tolerance to stop crime before it happens.

The campaign has seen the police clamping down on the use of illegal firearms.

The campaign has also seen villagers handing in their illegal firearms in exchange for immunity from arrest.

In the past three weeks alone, at least 51 firearms were handed over to the police.

The police say they suspect there are still a lot of illegal firearms floating around the country.

Most of these guns, they say, are smuggled from South Africa.

Impoverished Basotho exchange them for dagga which they grow almost on a commercial level in the highlands.

But the appeal by the police for villagers to surrender guns in their possession is not being entirely heeded, it would seem.

Every week the police say people are being either killed or intimidated with illegal guns.

Even though police say a lot of illegal firearms have been confiscated and surrendered, there are still too many illegal guns in the hands of the public.

Violent scenes such as the one narrated in the introduction have become common in Lesotho.

In Peka, in Leribe, about 60km north of Maseru, a 19-year-old man Sekolong Tsikoane shot himself in the head on July 13.

His father, Tšeliso Tsikoane, is still grieving.

He says he cannot comprehend how his son could have ended his life in such a violent manner.

Tsikoane says he finds it hard to think his son was once in possession of a gun.

“I am still shocked that my sweet little boy was once in possession of a gun and used it to end his life.

“I just wonder where he got the evil spirit to kill himself. I wonder where he got that gun,” says Tsikoane.  

The police say they suspect the gun was illegal as its serial number had been erased.

In Mokhotlong, about 180km north of Maseru, two men were stoned to death by a mob after they threatened to shoot some villagers.

The men first threatened the herd boys with a gun and managed to steal about 20 sheep.

They moved on to the next village where they used their firearm to threaten people. They stole more livestock.

The angered villagers ganged up against the two and attacked them.

The armed men were beaten to a pulp.

When the police came it was too late. They were dead.

The police confiscated the gun.

Also in Mokhotlong two men surrendered an AK47 rifle, a 9mm gun and two bullets to the police three weeks ago. 

The two told the police they got the guns in exchange for dagga.

The police say this practice is common in the highlands.

“People sell dagga to get firearms. This is common mostly in the mountainous areas. Most of the illegal guns are used to commit criminal offences.

“But obtaining an illegal firearm is a criminal offence.

“We continue to appeal to people who are in possession of unlicensed firearms to hand them to the police. They will not be arrested for doing so.

“They would only have to answer if such firearms are found to have been used in criminal offences,” Masupha says.

However not everyone is willing to surrender their guns to the police.

In fact the police say not many people in urban areas have responded to the call to hand in their guns.

A taxi driver who requested anonymity says he would almost feel as if he is moving around naked if he were to surrender his weapon.

He says in the violent taxi business one has to “look after oneself” or you would die.

Looking after oneself means owning a gun to fend off attacks from rivals.

There have been several incidents of taxi drivers and their owners being involved in serious gun fights mostly over the use of lucrative taxi routes.

Although such fights have receded in recent years the image of the taxi industry being a violent one persists.

The taxi driver says he has witnessed colleagues “go down” because they were not armed.

“This industry is too cruel. A man has to protect himself. You are in danger if you do not have tšepe (firearm),” he says.

“You do not have to use it though. The trick is to make sure that a few people in the industry know that you have a gun.”

Colleagues and rivals will spread the word and soon enough everyone in the industry will know.

“Then no one will mess around with you because they will know that they could be in trouble,” he says.

“But when things turn ugly then you have protection near you. A man has to protect himself,” he says.

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