Shrouded in plumes of dense white smoke from burning dung, the dawn procession of barefooted herdsmen and 2,000 harp-horned cattle slowly departs into a landscape turned luminous green by overnight rain. Each group of 20 to 30 cows is accompanied by a tall, angular youth, his face covered in a mask of ochre ash and his naked body etched with the star-burst patterns of scars that announce his status as a cow keeper.
These are Mandari warriors, a tribe of nomadic cattle herders who have performed this daily dawn-to-dusk journey, from their open-air camps to pasture and back again, unchanged for millennia across the brick-red soil and hardy scrub of their homeland in the vast open expanses of southern Sudan. Unchanged, that is, except for one item. Strung across the shoulders of each cow keeper is what the Mandari call a "Perik".
This is a weathered and worn AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle and it gets its Mandari name from the sound it makes when it looses off its lethal rounds at a rate of four bullets per second. It is a sound which has become all too familiar to the Mandari. Until a fragile peace was declared nine months ago, the region was the battlefield for a 23-year civil war, which claimed two million lives. Isolated and self-sufficient, the Mandari have never before spoken to Western journalists about their way of life. It is a measure of their concern that they consented to talk to The Independent.
Sitting in Kwajroji, a camp of open shelters and mango trees in the wilderness to the north of Juba, the battered capital of southern Sudan, one of the herdsmen, Malual, said: "We need the Perik to protect our cows. We used to have spears and axes. But our lives have been changed by war - you must have a gun or else you will be robbed of your animals and killed like a dog. We have no choice. We must carry them."
Beside him, Andria Killa, 20, pointed towards his Chinese-made Kalashnikov: "My family bought ours for six cows. It is our custom never to sell cows. That is how important such things have become - we forget the customs. Last year, my cousin was killed by a gun. The Kalashni is the ruling power here, if you like it or not."
These ageing Cold War weapons represent the ultimate trickle-down of the global small arms industry. It is a trade which each year adds eight million more guns to add to the 650 million, a conservative estimate, already circulating the globe. Those same weapons claim 1,000 lives each day across the world - from the unseen killing zones of Darfur to the streets of American and European cities. Some 60 per cent of guns in the world are in civilian hands. There is now thought to be one AK-47 for every family in southern Sudan, one of the world's poorest regions recently beset by a cholera epidemic.
At the forefront of this deluge of munitions lie a host of world's richest nations, including Britain. From manufacturers, the guns are sold to governments and exporters, who set in train an arms trail to warlords and rebel armies until, finally, they reach wandering farmers who have them only because everyone else does.
The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), a coalition of 700 campaigning groups including Amnesty International and Oxfam, is pressing governments for action to staunch this flow of lethal technology. Rebecca Peters, IANSA's director, said: "War and conflict act like funnels for weaponry - vast amounts pour into war zones in Africa and elsewhere. When that conflict is over, the weapons remain and become part of civilian life.
"The majority of people who are killed by guns are not killed in situations of war but in those of crime and personal attack. It is often a conflict over resources. It is very difficult to stop but more can be done to curtail and control this trade than is being done by governments currently, which is very little."
A world away from the Mandari, efforts to prod and cajole the politicians into tackling the small arms issue will reach a head in June at the United Nations in New York. The UN Small Arms Review Conference will discuss the implementation of measures, already agreed in 2001, to restrict the flow of weaponry.
But the real goal sought by IANSA, now with the backing of the British Government, is the start of negotiations for the first global arms-trade treaty to set out principles prohibiting the sale of weaponry by any government or supplier when it would lead to human rights abuses, fuel an existing conflict or hinder development. Such a treaty would close a key loophole which allows arms traders to get around tight export laws in countries such as the UK by simply transferring the purchase to less scrupulous countries.
Privately campaigners admit that even a vital measure to be tabled in June - producing compulsory minimum standards for the civil control of guns, such as registration schemes - will once again flounder in the face of long-standing American opposition.
So while the diplomats argue, Mandari elders warn that their own arms race is destroying their culture. From child abduction by gun-toting rivals to a new and unfamiliar lack of respect for human life, the gun is seen as a necessary but corrosive evil.
As well as being caught up in the civil war, the nomads have continued their age-old conflict with the other cattle-keeping tribes, in particular their great rivals, the numerically superior Dinka. Armed raids to steal cows from the herds of "enemy" tribes have been commonplace since time immemorial. But the arrival of guns has changed these battles from skirmishes conducted hand-to-hand with spears and bows and arrows to ambushes conducted by an enemy that often cannot be seen.
About 1,000 Mandari live in the clearings around Kwajroji. Tribal chiefs said that before the arrival of the guns during the war (fought broadly between the Arab Muslim government in Khartoum and the Christian or Animist peoples of the south, and each side's allied bandit militias) they expected no more than two or three injuries a year. Now they average 25 killings each year and dozens of injuries.
Even as The Independent interviewed the Mandari warriors, some were departing, their Periks hanging down their backs, on a long trek 70 miles to the east to join their clansmen in skirmishes against Dinka tribesmen.
Juru Bontend Mula, the 85-year-old supreme chief for the Mandari in the Juba region, said: "Before the guns, to take a life in a raid was a serious matter. It meant you were a great warrior but the life taken had to be atoned for. Both spear and warrior had to be cleansed. The gun makes that impossible. You cannot throw a spear at someone with a gun. Instead you shoot from far away - you don't look your enemy in the eye. You don't receive or pay blood money because you cannot know who carried out the killing. Life has become cheap."
During the war, the Mandari herds were also targeted by militia groups and the opposing armies of the Khartoum defence forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which now leads southern Sudan's embryonic regional government.
But this is not a story about picturesque nomads caught up in the cross-fire of a war in which they had no part or interest. Many of the tribesmen were recruited into the armies. When the Dinka sided largely with the SPLA, the Mandari felt obliged to fight alongside the Khartoum government and were supplied with the AK-47s that many of the carry today. Both sides were guilty of atrocity and cruelty.
The result has been ruinous for the nomads. Cattle worth some £1bn belonging to the tribes has been stolen and killed in the past 25 years by dint of guns and the minefields that pepper the area. Such was the glut of artillery shells rained down on the Mandari lands during the war, they melt down the brass casings and turn them into heavy amulets worn on the arm.
Britain has played its own, inauspicious part in the plight of the Mandari and others in southern Sudan. Until the mass killings in Darfur provoked an international arms embargo in 2003, the UK was a significant arms exporter to Sudan. Figures based on customs records kept by the UN and obtained by The Independent show that between 2001 and 2003, Britain sent arms worth £515,000 into Sudan, the bulk of it a single consignment of bombs, grenades, ammunition and mines worth £420,000.
That is a tiny fraction of what Khartoum imported from elsewhere. But mine experts in Juba confirmed that British-made mines planted during the civil war were among those found throughout the region.
Peter Duku, the programme director for the Sudan Landmine Response Initiative, who has worked extensively with cattle herders, said: "This has all been about a process of arming a civil society. There were so many weapons awash in southern Sudan, supplied by Khartoum and brought from neighbouring countries and further afield, that guns and other armaments became a commonplace. There have been British mines found here. During the conflict, the cattle herds often wandered into the mine fields. On one occasion when a Mandari cow was killed, the soldiers ate the meat and then made the herders pay for the mine. It is possible that mine was made in England."
To the Mandari, it feels like a careful balance of power built up over centuries has been replaced by savage anarchy in which guns are the sole arbiters of power.
Translated from the Mandari dialect, Kwajroji means the Village of the Good. Its inhabitants take pride in living up to the name, they say, by preserving the traditions of their culture.
The Mandari herders are largely illiterate. They see little point of reading and writing in a life lived in the bush. What possessions they have must be carried. Their entire material wealth is bound up in the cattle, which sleep and eat beside them, tethered to hundreds of wooden pegs in the safety of the cattle camps. It is therefore difficult to understate the love the Mandari lavish on their cows and their produce. Each man carries a "cow name" based on the colour of his favourite - Malual for red-brown, Macher for black, and Marien for black and white, which is considered the most prestigious. Each morning, the cow keepers can be found massaging the same ochre ash they put on their faces into the flanks of the cows to deter disease-carrying insects.
Women and children also use butter with ash to condition the skin and protect against infection. When a Mandari boy reaches the age of 15 he undergoes the initiation of "Rothi". After being expelled from the camps to live in the bush for three months, the transition from boyhood to manhood is marked with the sacrifice of a bull. The initiate is thereafter given the position of cow keeper, in charge of a herd's well-being, protection and therefore his family's social standing.
The loss of a herd casts shame on an entire family. That means all means possible must be deployed to ensure its protection, including wielding the assault rifle. But the all-pervading presence of the gun in southern Sudan has led to a sinister new phenomenon, child abduction.
The Mandari in Kwajroji said that as recently as December they had been raided by gunmen from a rival clan, where infertility is rife due to sexually transmitted disease, who tried to kidnap three children. The children were saved after their families raised the alarm and the kidnappers were tracked down and shot.
Machar Butis, 50, who heads one of the family groups in Kwajroji, said: "This is how bad life has become - they no longer want just our cattle but also our children. All the rules that once applied have been rewritten." At the Juba teaching hospital, the only one in an area the size of England, there are 50 people who have been shot in the town in the past six weeks. One doctor said: "Everyone still has these guns [from the war] and they are being used to settle even the most minor dispute. They are being used to protect and gain wealth."
Andria, whose cow name is Macher, said: "When I was a boy, the only thing I was afraid of in the bush was that a lion might attack and kill me.
"Now a man might attack and steal all my cattle. That would kill not only me but all my family. This is what guns do."Reuse content