here, there, everywhere

A Town of Weapons

Arnout’s sick in bed with some kind of upset stomach.  Unfortunate since he’s the one that had convinced us all to fly up here.  It was his idea to catch the cheap flight and come to the Northwest Frontier Province, Peshawar, and ultimately Darra.  We had heard stories, legends, from our group leaders about this town where the inhabitants are all weapons makers.  Any kind of gun could be found there.  Maybe more exciting than the thought of seeing all of that was the actual getting there.  One person had been smuggled into the town while hiding under sacks in the back of a pick-up truck.  We had read that the easiest and cheapest way to get there would be to catch a public bus and tell the driver we were going to the town just past Darra.  Then all we’d have to do was jump out once we reached our true destination.

A view from the plane as land in Peshawar, Pakistan.

As we contemplated this journey, Jim, Cam, and I sat on the side of the street munching on hard candies, snapping photos of the crazy buses, trucks, and tuktuks.  Three little girls, sisters probably, no more than six years old, and unaccompanied by an adult, walked past, wearing identical dresses and holding hands.  A man on the sidewalk stopped them and told them to pose for a photo.  Three pairs of wide brown eyes stared up as we took their picture.  They didn’t smile, they didn’t flinch, they didn’t pose.  They silently stood there, unsure of what to do.  When we were done, the old man turned the little girls around by their shoulders and pushed them on their way.

A Peshawari tuktuk.

The three little girls.

Soon after that we made the decision to head to Darra.  It was getting late and as much as we wanted to get to the city, no one was keen on doing it after dark, so we hailed a tuktuk and bounced precariously through traffic to the central bus station.  It was a madhouse.  Buses bumped and careened in and out of the station yard at perilous speeds.  Hundreds of people, mostly men, were lining up for their routes.  Taxis and tuktuks jockeyed for position in the streets, narrowly avoiding pedestrians and donkeys. The thought of finding the right bus appeared impossible, but there was an orderliness that belied the chaos and within five minutes we found our vehicle.  By safety standards at home it would have been considered an eight-passenger van.  But this was Pakistan and soon it was crammed with 18 people, 17 men, and myself, the lone problematic female.  Since I wasn’t anyone’s relative, the seating had to be rearranged until I was stuffed between a window and one of my friends.  Once everyone was in, the door slammed shut and the bus shot out of the parking lot.  We were on our way.  Until the taxi got in our way and we nailed it from behind.  One more delay in the middle of the hot afternoon, flies sand swirling in through the windows.  But again, this is Pakistan and accident protocol is drivers yelling at each other, gesticulating wildly at dented fenders, a little shoving, a little pushing, throwing hands up in the air.  The drivers get back in their vehicles and as the bus rockets forward, everyone gets out of its way, and this time, we’re really off.

It’s about a 60 minute ride, or so we’ve been told.  We’re keeping our destination a secret because it’s illegal for us to go there.  But as we enter one particular town, we notice a lot of guns and knives in the store-front windows.  Everyone’s carrying a rifle and there is a wild-eyed quality to the inhabitants that makes us blow our cover.  “Darra? Darra?”  we yell above the din of the motor and pedestrians.  The other passengers laugh and yell at the driver to stop so the crazy tourists can get out.  We hear the sound of automatic rifle fire overhead, the staccato bursts as bullets pepper the hillside.  The streets are congested with human traffic and people alternately run and walk to wherever it is they’re going.  It’s loud with yelling, donkeys baying, weapons discharging.  But as soon as the villagers see us, the whole town goes silent.  Hundreds of eyes stare at us as hands stop their work, feet stop walking, and movement grinds to a halt.  Apart from us making our way to a shop, the only things left moving are the bullets of the guns being tested in back alleys and our chests as they heave under the pressure of pounding hearts.  The bus screeches off and leaves us in its dust.  As we make our way down the street to a shop selling knives, the people in our path step back like the parting of the Red Sea.  They silently stare at us and then quietly step into our wake, following us a few paces back, wanting to be close, but never touching.  One man approaches Cam and whispers in his ear, “It’s not safe for you here, you should leave now!”  Cam ignores him and we continue our procession to the store and what we hope is safety.

This is what the police hate.  Any kind of gathering crowd is unpredictable.  It may first be curiosity, but all it takes is one person to stir up emotions and the crowd can turn into a mob.  Within two minutes of stepping out of the bus, a police officer shoves his way through the eerily silent crowd that watches us as we look at some knives.  He walks up to Cam and asks for our papers.  Of course we have none, and Cam plays dumb.  The officer buys the act, or maybe he’s aware of the game and plays his own hand.  He’ll let us stay, he’ll even take us on a tour, but it will cost.  The baksheesh is common practice – a little monetary bribe goes a long way and $8 dollars later, we have a private armed escort that takes us into the tiny back alleys where guns of every barrel length, action, and caliber are made.  Our police officer-turned-guide tells us that the men of Darra are so talented when it comes to their art, you can give them any gun they’ve never seen before, and within three days they’ll have stripped it down, mapped it out, and made an exact replica.

The gun factories are not slick.  There aren’t any fancy, shiny machines, no punch cards for hours worked, no coffee room, and in addition to the materials and tools needed to fashion the weapons, beds are in the corners of each shop as the factories double as home for the workers.  The factories are more like concrete sheds, little rooms stacked side by side, lining the narrow alleys.

On a bed in one of these rooms where a young boy of about sixteen is working on a Kalashnikov, an old man sits cross-legged, his shirt in his lap, chin up, while another man trims his beard with a straight-edge razor.  In the next room, two more boys sit on the dirt floor handling their guns.  They barely pause to look up at us as they polish the barrels of the rifles.

As we move from room to room, the atmosphere is unreal.  It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.  There is an eerie, raw quality to what we’re seeing and it’s hard to comprehend what’s happening as AK-47s, Kalashnikovs, pistols, and other weapons are thrust in our hands when we get our pictures taken to remember the adventure.

Jim, me, and Cam posing with the guns. Surreal shot, why are we smiling when we know what we’re holding? Darra, Pakistan

The next alley makes us stop in our tracks.  Guns aren’t made here, bullets are.  And they’re made by the bucket-full by tiny refugee, Afghani boys.  They’re no older than six, and they sit on hard, dirt floors as they expertly make shiny, deadly bullets.  How much do they get per bullet?  Five cents maybe our guide says, but that sounds awfully high in a country where $1 goes a long way.

As we leave the sweat-shop alley, our guide asks if we’d like to fire some guns ourselves?  Of course!  It’s why we came.  He quickly guides us through the alleys to the other side of the town.  He’s intentionally avoiding the main streets – our presence makes his job that much harder and he’d prefer that we keep out of sight as much as possible.  We’re never outside for too long, we’re always pushed into a darkened shop or factory room.  We’re waiting inside one of these shoeboxes while he negotiates a price for the weapons and bullets.  We can fire off an AK-47 or a Chinese handgun, or both.  The price for each bullet is about 50 cents for the AK-47 and 25 cents for the handgun.  Yes, the prices are inflated, but there’s not a huge market for guns these days.  In Afghanistan the mujahadeens are done with the Russians and the Taliban has fled.  In Pakistan itself, the government finds Darra to be an embarrassment and if it can’t eliminate the village entirely, at least it can restrict a little of what goes on inside.  Demand and production have gone down, so the price of bullets has gone up.  Nevertheless, we each put some money down, and soon after we are being led to a secluded valley to test out the guns.

We haven’t seen any women up to this point, but now young Afghani girls have joined the little boys who run beside us as we make our way to the firing range.  They’re all beautiful children, big bright blue or green eyes, dark smooth skin dirty from hours of playing in the sand.  As we try to take pictures, the girls run away or cover their faces with the brightly coloured scarves on their heads.  The boys are just as shy at first, but eventually they jockey for position to be in the front of the photos.  They follow at a distance, walking ten paces back, running ahead, or climbing through the bushes and on the rocks to get a better view of the strangers below.

Happy we’re here.

Kids everywhere.

After 10 minutes we arrive at the range which is a mass of jumbled boulders, straggly shrubs, a few trees, and a trickle of water that struggles to become a stream.  As we make our targets out of newspapers and coloured bags, I have a chance to look more closely at our surroundings.  It’s obvious we are not the first tourists to ever come here, but where are all the shells from previous target practices?  The ground is bare except for plastic bags and rocks.  This question is shortly answered as Cam starts firing off the gun.  The kids that hung back at first and watched from a distance have sprung into action and are now jumping to catch the shells as they eject from the cartridge.  There’s money to be had in each recycled shell and it turns into a scrum as they fight to grab.  It’s not as easy as it looks but I put out my hand to try and catch a souvenir.  It’s steaming hot and scalds my hand as I close my fingers around it.  The hands on these tiny kids must be calloused after so many  days? month? years? of scavenging.

Getting my bullets.

The Chinese handgun I fired first for practice.

On to an AK-47.

Soon we’ve each had a turn at playing Rambo and it’s time to go back.  The sun is setting and it’s not the safest town to be caught in after dark.  As we walk back to the village, the kids continue to follow us.  This time though, they start throwing rocks.  It may be their way of expressing happiness.  It may be a game of seeing who gets the closest.  It doesn’t seem threatening or particularly dangerous, and although the rocks don’t quite reach us, the aim is good and if they get any closer, there might be bruising.  Our guide quickly resumes his role as police officer and yells at them to scare them off.  It deters them only for a moment and before long the rocks come whistling towards our heads again.  This time the officer picks up a rock and throws it back into the middle of their little gang and finally they disperse.  But as we enter an alley, we can hear them giggling behind us and there is the unmistakable thump of rocks hitting the walls.

It’s the end of another day of Ramadan and the shops are quickly closing up so the owners can prepare dinner.  Our guide has now fully assumed his duty of police officer and he shoves us into a shop, ordering us to wait there.  Five minutes later he returns and orders us to march.  The bus back to Peshawar is waiting in the street and it’s his job to get us into it and see us on our way without a public incident.  I slowly follow the boys as they head to the bus and all of a sudden the incredibly strong hand of the officer is on my back, propelling me forward, urging me to move faster as if my life depends on it.  We barely have time to look back and say thank you before he launches us into the bus, slams the door shut, and yells at the driver to go.

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