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  From the July 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL.48, No.7)

Kalashnikov Culture

Talking Tough on Guns in Pakistan

Martin Regg Cohn, The Toronto Star, Toronto, Canada (centrist).
April 11, 2001.

Highly armed civilian in Northwest Pakistan. (Photo: AGW)
Nazar Mirzalkhel owns five AK-47 automatic rifles and two pistols. But he’s feeling vulnerable today. So he’s come to a market town in Pakistan in search of a new handgun and more bullets.

Browsing past rows of neatly stacked assault weapons, he settles on a .30-caliber Pakistani-made copy of a Russian pistol. After a round of friendly bargaining, the gun dealer eventually agrees to Mirzalkhel’s $30 offer. The deal is sealed with a test firing and a handshake.

But behind the smiles, the transaction is a deadly serious business. Mirzalkhel fears a decade-old family feud in his nearby village is about to flare up again. And like many Pathan tribesmen, he intends to settle matters the old-fashioned way: He’s going to kill quarrelsome family members.
“It’s a land feud in the family, and it has been going on for nine years,” he says, fondling the cold steel weapon while the gun dealer fiddles with his calculator. “We’re buying more weapons because we’re braced for the worst. You can never have enough weapons, and I’m in danger right now.”

In Pakistan, collecting guns—and firing them—has become a national tradition, dubbed the “Kalashnikov culture.” But with the death toll surging, the 18-month-old military government has resolved to crack down on the practice, applying what it calls “de-weaponization.” The army is banning new licenses for assault weapons. Displaying guns in public places—markets, mosques, and meetings—will be forbidden, the government has announced.

“Here, if you kill someone, do you ever see anyone hanged for it? You bribe the cops, and you’re free to go.”
Similar de-weaponization programs have been proposed in the past. But this time the army is talking tough as it targets tribal groups and religious extremists. No one will be allowed to display arms or force people to give donations for the purchase of weapons, even “in the name of jihad (Islamic struggle or holy war),” warned Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider, a retired general.

But many Pakistanis vow to fight to keep their guns. Extremist Islamic groups, whose leaders usually speak to large crowds of armed fighters and are usually shadowed by bodyguards wielding Kalashnikovs, have lashed out at the government plan to limit fund-raising for weaponry.

“This is an un-Islamic statement coming from a minister of the Islamic republic,” snapped Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba Islamic group. “We collect funds from the holy cause and display arms only in jihad.”

Whether for religious crusades, family feuds, or wedding celebrations, the Kalashnikov culture will be hard to uproot. “The de-weaponization campaign is on the rocks,” editorialized The News of Karachi recently. “Militants roam freely, and those with sectarian leanings continue to kill with ease; weapons being brandished is a routine sight.”

In Sakhakot, an old gun market town 37 miles northeast of the border city of Peshawar, old traditions die hard. People keep hoarding guns. “Business is good, thanks to Allah,” says Imran Khan, 18, who sells 30 pistols and a half-dozen assault rifles in an average month. “I make a small profit, and it’s a living.”

“You can never have enough weapons, and I'm in danger now.”
Asked about the people who die as a result, Khan says his responsibility ends when the customer hands over his cash. He blames local police for looking the other way whenever someone is shot. “Here, if you kill someone, do you ever see anyone hanged for it?” he asks rhetorically. “You bribe the cops, and you’re free to go.” And so the gun culture endures.

Bristling with an array of imported and homemade weaponry, Sakhakot attracts buyers from across the country. More than 200 gun dealers have set up shop off the main street, which resounds with the clicks of guns being cocked and the bangs from test firings. Much of the weaponry originates with Pakistan’s homegrown gun industry in Darra Adam Khel, 25 miles to the south. Using primitive tools, craftsmen can copy any foreign weapon—from pen pistols to assault weapons—right down to the lettering and serial number.

But dealers say the imitation guns use inferior steel, so they weigh more and fire less accurately. Customers with enough cash prefer the superior killing power of authentic Kalashnikovs, which cost about $250.

“Some copies are so good you can’t tell until you pick them up and notice the weight difference,” says Alil Khan, 45, whose family has run a gun shop here for generations. “But if you could choose between a Japanese-made television or a Pakistani-made copy, which would you buy?”

Khan and his competitors fear the government plan will drive them out of business. But they take comfort from the fact that no one has ever succeeded in clearing guns out of the area before. “There’s no stable government, it changes every two years, and they can’t even control Karachi,” says his brother Israr, 25, leaning against a poster of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

“How can they control this area? People won’t turn in their weapons, and if the government tries to take them, the people will fight back,” Israr warns. “If they try to go house-to-house, it’ll be civil war. The weapon, for a Pathan tribesman, is part of his cultural heritage, and he doesn’t feel safe without one.”

For the former army man who now heads the Interior Ministry in Pakistan’s military government, that tradition poses a major obstacle to de-weaponization. “We are telling people that in civilized societies, carrying weapons is not essential,” Haider says.

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