Liberia: Turning old bullets into art

MONROVIA, Liberia — In the aftermath of Liberiaʼs civil war, Benjamin Somah stumbled upon a way to turn the violence into art.

Walking through the streets of this war-torn capital city, Somah came across bullet casings big and small from the fighting that raged for years. 

The enterprising craftsman collected the spent bullets and began crafting them into figurines. Heʼs dedicated himself to creating art that promotes the message that something good can come from the violence and pain that his country endured for more than 20 years.

“I just wanted to transform some of the materials from the war into something peaceful,” said Somah, 51, who calls himself a bullet designer. “I wanted to create something people havenʼt seen before, especially something from the war.”

The small metal sculptures include maps of Africa and Liberia, a peace boat, a palm tree, a church and one with a woman carrying a baby on her back. He also molds crosses of varying designs and a nativity scene complete with a baby Jesus in the manger.

The large crosses are made from .75-caliber bullet shells, the trees from .60-caliber. The smaller figurines are made from AK-47 shells.

Liberiaʼs civil war began in the late 1980s and continued until a peace treaty was signed in 1995. But that peace agreement quickly fell apart and the war continued until 2003, when Charles Taylor stepped down as president.

That fragile peace held through a transitional period and in 2005 elections were held. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf won the presidential race and was sworn into office in 2006.

Taylor is now on trial at The Hague for war crimes and atrocities committed during neighboring Sierra Leoneʼs civil war. He is charged with having financially backed the rebels in Sierra Leone.

The United Nationsʼ peacekeeping presence remains strong in Liberia with 15,000 troops still present in a country with a population of 3.9 million.

Between 200,000 and 250,000 people were killed during the Liberian war, where much of the fighting took place in the capital city of Monrovia.

After the war, empty shells were easy to find strewn about the capital city's streets. Somah said most of the shells were given away to scrappers.

“Perhaps they made more bullets. But I used it as a souvenir and as a remembrance to the war,” he said.

By now itʼs getting harder to find shells. Somah recognizes thatʼs a good thing for Liberia and its effort to move beyond the war. But he needs the bullet casings for his work and he continues to hunt for them. He gets shells from scrap haulers and often people living in rural areas send him bullets they find.

He turns the bullets into small metal sculptures. Prices range from $2 for a small figurine to about $30 for the large nativity scene. Somah said he makes a decent living selling to tourists and often ships large orders off to church or charity groups in the United States and Europe.

Somah began making crosses from bullets in 2003, when members of a Lutheran church — run by German expatriates — taught a group of Liberians how to make crosses out of the fired shells.

There were orders for hundreds of crosses for church groups in Europe and the United States, Somah said. Over time, the other carvers lost interest, or found other jobs. Somah, instead, branched out and began making other designs.

“This is my job, itʼs what I use to sustain myself and family and build my house,” said the father of eight.

Somah uses a set of worn hand tools to first flatten the bullet casings and ultimately cut the shells into the desired shape. Using an old brake drum as a base, Somah etches out the pattern using a lead pencil. Then he uses a small hand tool to cut around the etchings and finishes them off with a file.

“People said Iʼm very creative with the patience I exhibit," he said. “It might take me an hour to fix one.”

Somah said heʼs been recognized by government officials and once displayed his figurines at an event attended by the president of Liberia.

“Some people laugh, but they donʼt know the importance of these things,” he said. “They donʼt know Iʼm creating something that is historical.”