Magazine article Geographical

Kalashnikov Central: Nazia Parvez Gets a Guided Tour around Darra Adam Khel in Pakistan's Troubled Northwest Frontier Province, a Town with an Unusual Home-Grown Industry. Additional Reporting by Shafiq Ahmed

Magazine article Geographical

Kalashnikov Central: Nazia Parvez Gets a Guided Tour around Darra Adam Khel in Pakistan's Troubled Northwest Frontier Province, a Town with an Unusual Home-Grown Industry. Additional Reporting by Shafiq Ahmed

Article excerpt

At first glance, it seems like any other small town in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP). The thoroughfare is typically windswept and dusty, and lined with a row of apparently indistinct shops. The austere architecture echoes the muted greens and beiges of the sandstone hills that provide the town with its unimpressive backdrop. From time to time, a flurry of vehicles hurtles past, dragging a trail of dust and litter along in its wake. Otherwise, the only movement is that of the town's menfolk, who slip casually and unhurriedly among the shadows of the hot midday sun.

Then, suddenly, the afternoon torpor is shattered by an explosion of gunfire. I spin around to see a man with a Kalashnikov retreating unnoticed into one of the shops. I'm startled by the violence, but elsewhere, the residents barely stop to register the event. Peace returns to the street, albeit temporarily. Moments later, there is another crack of gunfire. Then another.

But I'm not in any danger. These men are simply testing their weapons before buying them. Indeed, on closer inspection it becomes apparent that the kilometre-long main street is lined almost exclusively with arms and ammunition shops. These are outlets for the town's lucrative home-grown industry: the manufacture of arms. The narrow side-streets, meanwhile, which radiate out from here to the nearby low-lying hills, are full of countless workshops, where smithies, woodworkers, polishers, engravers and other master craftsmen ply their trades.

Pistols, rifles (semi-automatic and automatic) and shotguns (single and double barrelled) are all manufactured and sold here, some for as little as 30 [pounds sterling]. Some shops stock guns disguised as pens and walking sticks, others sell grenades. I'm told that if you look hard enough, you'll find missiles and rocket launchers. This is Darra Adam Khel: gun town of the Northwest Frontier.

Surreal world

According to a popular tale, the origins of Darra's unusual industry date back to the days of the Raj, when the town's craftsmen replicated a rifle stolen from the British by a Punjabi fugitive. The skills were subsequently passed down from one generation to the next, and the manufacture of arms came to be considered an art form.

For much of the 20th century, Darra's arms industry was modest. But when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the entire NWFP became the staging ground for the jihad, or holy war, and large quantifies of weapons were shipped across the border to Afghanistan to arm the Mujahideen resistance. Since then, indigenous manufacturers in the NWFP, and Darra in particular, have continued producing AK-47s--replicas of the fabled Russian assault rifle, the Kalashnikov--as well as an array of other weapons.

Today, there may be as many as 3,000 gun manufacturers in Darra, employing more than 20,000 people--about three quarters of the town's inhabitants. According to the Small Arms Survey, the town produced an incredible 20,000 small arms in 2003. Such is the scale of the industry now that Darra represents one of the largest private arms manufacturers in Asia.

As I walk through the town with my guide Saeed, I find myself getting used to the intermittent crackle of gunfire, and soon it becomes mere background noise.

Above the shops, hand-painted wooden signs depict caricatures of guns. Inside, the merchants sit around casually, waiting patiently for customers; some lounge on mats laid on the bare cement floors. They drink tea, read the newspaper and make idle conversation.

Their simple displays provide a showcase of the latest weaponry. In one shop, lines of AK-47s hang from nails. Rickety cabinets with dusty acrylic panels are crammed full of pistols. A wooden shelf is stacked with boxes of ammunition. These sit unassumingly next to a flute and a pewter vase that holds a knot of gaudy plastic flowers. …

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