Campaign Against the Arms Trade, June 2007

June 13, 2007

Titanic Express

On December 28th 2000 my sister Charlotte, a British aid worker, was dragged from a bus in Burundi, robbed, forced to lie face down on the ground, and shot. Twenty other passengers of the oddly-named ‘Titanic Express’ bus, mostly Rwandan and Burundian Tutsis, shared the same fate. In the moments before she was killed, survivors say, Charlotte was told: “It’s the white people supplying the weapons in Africa – now you’re going to feel what it’s like”.

From the first days after my sister’s death, I was driven by the need to know more about who had killed her, and why. Slowly I built up a network of Burundian contacts, many of whom had lost loved ones at the hands of the same group, the Hutuextremist Palipehutu-FNL. This led, in 2002, to the recovery of an explosive report, written by the attackers themselves, detailing how the massacre was carried out. The document says little about the victims, noting only that 21 people were killed. But with meticulous care, the killers list the clothes and personal effects they looted from the dead, the guns used, and even the number of bullets expended: In the process of murdering Charlotte and her twenty fellow passengers, Palipehutu-FNL fired off 963 rounds of ammunition. This alone must say something about the easy availability of weapons in a country that ranks among the poorest in the world.

Arms trade and conflict

Burundi’s brutal war has claimed upwards of 300,000 lives since 1993. In the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the estimates run into millions. The conflicts ravaging Central Africa are driven by a potent mix of economic stagnation, entrenched corruption, poisonous racial ideology and breathtaking political cynicism. But without the abundant supply of arms, their impact would be far less deadly.

On the night of August 13th 2004, Palipehutu-FNL carried out one of their largest massacres to date, killing more than 150 Congolese Tutsis in an attack on the Gatumba refugee camp. Cartridges recovered from the scene were traced as far afield as Serbia, Bulgaria and China.

Successive UN reports have implicated dozens of western companies in illegal profiteering from the DRC war, which is intimately connected to the Burundi conflict. Those named include the UK-based Zimbabwean arms dealer John Bredenkamp and Andrew Smith, the British owner of the “air cargo firm” Avient

In September last year, a UN investigation revealed the nature of the “cargo” that Avient had been transporting. A 2006 report in the Sunday Times said that:

“Ukrainian and Russian aircrews recruited by Avient on behalf of the Congolese airforce were flying blanket bombing raids that in all probability were killing and maiming civilians caught in the war zone thousands of feet below.

Rudimentary bombs made from industrial gas cylinders filled with TNT were being rolled out of the backs of giant Antonov transport aircraft flown at high altitude in indiscriminate raids.”

International awareness

To date the UK has proved reluctant to follow up the UN’s allegations, but Bredenkamp’s offices were raided by the Serious Fraud Office last year as part of the BAE corruption inquiry. One more reason to hope that CAAT succeeds in getting the inquiry reopened is that it may help shed some much-needed light on Bredenkamp’s business dealings.

In the six years since my sister was killed, I’ve been shocked by the lack of international awareness of the horrors ravaging Central Africa and the complicity of western profiteers. It was for this reason that I decided to write a book about my family’s experience, and our efforts to understand the conflict that claimed Charlotte’s life.

Since writing it, I’ve had more opportunities to get involved in efforts to limit the arms trade. Most recently I’ve been pleased to support the Disarm UCL campaign (, aimed at persuading my old college to divest its £1.5 million of shares in the arms trade. Across the globe, wars are causing massive population displacement, hindering development, and destroying civilian infrastructure. This disruption inevitably deprives millions of their right to an education. It therefore seems particularly wrong that a university, especially one tied to a teaching hospital, should be profiting from the warfare industry.

The more I’ve learned about the conflicts in Central Africa, the harder it has been to detach what happens in Burundi, Rwanda and the DRC from what happens here in Europe, where the guns and bullets are made. If the cycle of violence is ever to be ended, then we have to get the international arms trade under control.

Titanic Express by Richard Wilson is published by Continuum, priced £10.99.

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