From American RadioWorks®, the documentary project of Minnesota Public Radio. On the Internet at

October 2002


Produced by American RadioWorks in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting and the new PBS television series, "Frontline World". Reporting for NPR is Frontline producer Rick Young.

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Over the last decade, more than four million people around the world have been killed in armed conflicts that were fueled with handheld weapons such as pistols, rifles, grenades and machine guns.

These small arms come from all over the world: Uzi's from Israel, AK-47's from the former Soviet bloc and American M-16's left over from the Vietnam War. They are passed from war zone to war zone through a global network of arms traffickers. Today, there are more than 550,000,000 small arms in circulation.

The United Nations has tried to stop the illegal weapons trade by imposing sanctions and embargos. But the arms keep coming. They are cheap and light-weight, easy to smuggle across borders in trucks and small planes.

This is a story about just one part of the illegal arms pipeline.

UN Inspections

In Sierra Leone, West Africa, a team of UN investigators digs through a metal shipping container, the size of a small garage. It's filled with arms turned in by fighters disarming after a decade of bloody civil war.

One man explains, "We have a mix of all types of weapons, pistols, AK47's to even antiaircraft missiles."

The men inspecting the container are part of a team investigating arms trafficking in the region. Their job is to figure out why UN arms embargoes aren't working.

The investigators are hoping to find some scrap of evidence that will tell them where the weapons came from. On this day, they're frustrated. There is no evidence, no documents or labels. All they have are some suspicions and these lead to the former Soviet Union.


In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, soldiers march down snow-covered steps toward the city's "Motherland Monument." These troops are a remnant of what was once the Second Soviet Army, an 800,000 strong force stationed here. As the Soviet Union collapsed so did Ukraine's military. But the by-product of the Cold War buildup remained, according to UN investigator Johan Peleman.

"We are really talking huge, huge quantities of less sophisticated weaponry: land mines, ammunition, small arms," says Peleman. "All that sort of equipment that wasn't almost worth the trouble to transport back to Russia was left behind. And what most of these countries do, is they just dispose of this weaponry and sell it to the highest bidder."

And that's exactly what happened in Ukraine in the 1990s. As the country hit hard economic times, its surplus stocks of small arms suddenly became prized economic assets. Market forces prevailed and Ukraine's small arms stockpiles began to disappear.

In principle, it was no different from any other sphere of business.

Bargain Basement Arms Sales

"The only thing is, that there were no advertisements published, "tank on sale" or something," explains Sergy Odarych, the outspoken editor of an opposition newspaper in Kiev. "There is a buyer who wants to buy some arms and he has partners in Ukraine."

In 1998, Odarych obtained a confidential copy of a Parliamentary report on the Ukrainian arms sell-off.

The report concluded that between 1992 and 1998, Ukraine had lost 32 billion dollars worth of military assets, a lot of it through bargain-basement arms sales and theft by military officials.

The committee's findings were buried deep in the bureaucracy, until Odarych published the report. Afterwards, the editor got an unexpected late-night visit.

"When I was returning home one evening," said Odarych, "a man came to me, asked my name, and told me to stop issuing the newspaper and doing politics at all. Otherwise, the people who stand behind him would destroy me. And I told him I would not speak to him. And as I turned my back to go home, I heard three shots and one bullet went in my leg."

The shooting was never solved, and the follow-up investigation into the arms sell-off was cut short. The controversy may have ended there, but now new allegations about Ukraine's involvement in illegal arms sales have surfaced. And, this time, the charges come from a source inside the office of Ukraine's President.

Allegations against the Ukrainian Government

"My name is Nikolai Melnichenko. I am presently living in United States as a refugee. Prior to that I served in the security detachment of the President of Ukraine. "

Major Melnichenko says that, for several years, he secretly recorded hundreds of hours of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's private conversations. Recordings, he says, that reveal Ukraine's involvement in illegal arms sales.

"Some arms sales are covered up by the head of Intelligence Services or the Prime Minister," says Melnichenko. "Others are covered up by the President, and depending on the importance, everyone gets their cut of the action."

A former FBI expert reviewed some of the recordings and believes they are authentic. The US State Department has said only that it has no credible evidence of the arms sales Melnichenko has alleged, but Justice Department investigators are interested in what he has to say.

According to Melnichenko, the illegal arms trade is carried out by the government in collusion with Ukrainian mafia. He explains, "These are people who illegally have come to positions of power in Ukraine and who are robbing Ukraine for their own personal benefit. Heading this nexis of organized crime in Ukraine is Kuchma, the President."

The Ukrainian government says the Melnichenko tapes are fabricated and their release is politically motivated. It says that all of its arms deals are done legally. The problem, they say, is that legal shipments are diverted illegally by others.

Illegal Diversion?

"Our control system is working," asserts Volodymr Bandura, Ukraine's head of arms export controls. "So we are controlling to whom we are delivering, and that we are delivering to the right hands, to the right persons, to the right destinations. And what happens after that, it's very difficult to predict."

And difficult to unravel. Take for example the case of Vadim Rabinovich, one of Ukraine's wealthiest and most-well connected businessmen.

In early 1999, Rabinovich flew to Liberia, Sierra Leone's neighbor to the south.

"I like doing business wherever I can make money," says Rabinovich.

Rabinovich says he was interested in doing business in iron-ore. But he flew to Liberia on the private jet of a known arms trafficker and reputed member of the Ukrainian mafia. Five weeks later, a large shipment of arms, some 68 tons of weapons, was sent legally from Ukraine to the West African country of Burkina Faso and then flown illegally into Liberia, on that same private jet.

"Okay, yes," concedes Rabinovich. "We had a trip to Liberia and then in five weeks something happened. I'm so sorry but I cannot help you. I cannot explain what was going on." They were just showing us the country, what signs of democracy and that's it. Weapons? I have never legally or illegally traded in arms. And I theoretically don't know where to get them."

But international police files obtained by Frontline tie Rabinovich to organized crime, money laundering and a company accused of selling arms. Sources say that the arms trafficker, now imprisoned in Italy and charged with illegal arms sales to Liberia, has fingered Rabinovich for the 68 ton shipment from Ukraine.

UN investigators believe that the weapons were shipped from Liberia to rebel forces in Sierra Leone.


Back in Sierra Leone, surrendered weapons are stacked in UN containers. The country has held elections, but prospects for a lasting peace remain fragile. As the UN investigators found, many of the guns turned in by combatants were old and rusted. That means the best weapons have, most likely, been taken back into the bush, or perhaps they were shipped off to the next arms dealer and the next war zone.