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Darra Adamkhel's century-old illegal firearms industry is slowly dying

The bustling arms market is said to have even enticed Osama Bin Laden.
Updated Dec 29, 2018 03:47am
Darra's economy is driven by only one business – the manufacture and sale of illegal arms.
Darra's economy is driven by only one business – the manufacture and sale of illegal arms.

Along the lone street that runs across the village of Darra Adamkhel, there are shops that display firearms. Shotguns, revolvers, automatic pistols, snipers and even Kalashnikovs are carefully wrapped and preserved in plastic covers; more lethal weapons like rocket launchers and such can be found in the basement.

Darra's economy is driven by only one business – the manufacture and sale of illegal arms.

A mere stone’s throw away from Peshawar, South Asia’s largest black market for hand-made replicas of deadly weapons — dubbed the 'Disneyland for Gun Lovers' by international media — has been operational for the last 150 years.

Shahnawaz Afridi, a local resident and a member of the principal Afridi tribe, has been in the arms business for 35 years.

Within the compound of his house, he employs an impressive workforce of craftsmen and gunsmiths who use traditional techniques, passed down from father to son, to manufacture gun knock-offs and produce cartridges with little or no fancy equipment.

Gunsmiths in the local firearms industry are known to make a replica of any weapon within a few working days, with a one-year warranty included.

The finished goods, sold in the Darra bazaar, fetch a handsome price.

But in the absence of better job opportunities and despite disruption of trade due to several military operations in the region, the single biggest source of employment in Darra for the past century is deeply affected by a heavy cost of production and lacks any form of government support.

Local guns, migrant gunsmiths

There are currently around 8000 gunsmiths working in Darra Adamkhel today, in addition to hundreds of little workshops and small-scale factories engaged in arms manufacturing.

Astonishingly, most gun smiths are what the locals call ‘Hindustani’; a term long used to refer to those who live beyond the edges of Attock, and are thus non-native to the Pakhtun region.

Most gunsmiths are of Punjabi or Sindhi origin, and have been engaged in the trade for many years.

Yet the majority of arms dealers and weapon merchants in Darra are local Afridi tribesmen.

“Being a gunsmith is not a profitable job," Shahnawaz tells Dawn.com. "That is why most of the locals are shop keepers while 90 percent gunsmiths are outsiders."

Read: The gunsmiths of Darra

Iran Khan, a gunsmith, says,“Business is profitable for a shop keeper who takes large orders from dealers in Punjab and then buys our pistols and guns in bulk. But a gunsmith can only produce a TT pistol in two days and a 9 mm pistol in one week with working all day long.”

“He only makes a fixed amount at the end of the month most of the time,” Khan added.

About 90% of locally produced guns are shipped to Punjab and Sindh. And while the shipment of guns from Darra is illegal, their sale in other provinces is considered legal and accepted.

Local arms dealers make a lot more money while migrant gunsmiths are at the receiving end of the bargain.

80 to 90% of locally produced guns are shipped to Punjab and Sindh.
80 to 90% of locally produced guns are shipped to Punjab and Sindh.

Workmanship surpasses material

Shahnawaz says shops in Darra Adamkhel were once full of Afghan jihad era AK-47s and other military equipment. But that is not the case anymore.

The firearms produced locally are of sub-par quality, but popular nonetheless.

“There are very few Russian, Chinese or US military rifles and handguns on the market. These have been replaced with locally produced copies,” he said, adding that their biggest products were 9 mm pistols and semi-automatic shotguns made locally on the pattern of an AK-47.

Explore: Guns cheaper than smartphones in Darra Adamkhel

During the Afghan war in the 1980s, Osama Bin Laden was known to frequent Darra Adamkhel's bustling arms market. According to sources, he had found a skilled and experienced gunsmith to produce local replicas of AK47 guns for him. Bin Laden aimed at being "self-sufficient" in weapon manufacturing and saw cost-cutting and wholesale manufacturing as an opportunity.

The most popular products in the market are 9 mm pistols and semi-automatic shotguns made locally on the pattern of an AK-47.
The most popular products in the market are 9 mm pistols and semi-automatic shotguns made locally on the pattern of an AK-47.

But the locally produced guns did not match the quality, finesse and availability of Russian and Chinese guns inundated in the market those days; they were of low quality and the rifles were too heavy to run smoothly. The incident was reported to have allegedly given Al-Qaeda an 'upper hand', but the ground reality remained vastly different.

Today, an AK47 replica is widely produced and available for only Rs 12,000 per piece.

Though the guns produced are considered sub-standard by many, they are still bought by people in Punjab for self defense and for the use of security guards because the Chinese and Russian rifles cost a minimum of Rs 200,000 a piece.

In spite of advancements in machinery in recent years, gunsmiths in Darra produce guns the old manual way; a time consuming and demanding feat.

Modern-day market dynamics

Tribesmen of Darra Adamkhel have always needed high-quality steel to make barrels and bullets for their rifles in the absence of regular supply. Under the British Raj, no railway track was safe because lead, a highly sought after commodity, was exceedingly regulated.

Gunsmiths in Darra Adamkhel are without a regular supply of electricity - AFP
Gunsmiths in Darra Adamkhel are without a regular supply of electricity - AFP

The large gun manufacturing sector in Peshawar could not compete with Darra on the grounds of cost all through the 1960s. But for the gunsmiths of Darra Adamkhel today, the situation greatly differs.

Neither lead nor steel is regulated and is in abundant supply. But for the past seven months, the gunsmiths are without a regular supply of electricity.

Since the creation of Pakistan, electricity was being used on an industrial scale in the tribal territory and most of rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, without necessarily paying for it. In fact, electricity for domestic use would often be rerouted for commercial consumption.

But with a recent change in government policy—there is no more uncompensated electricity to go around.

“For more than 70 years no one paid the bills here and even used heavy lath machines round the clock, but now we are using diesel generators instead,” Shahnawaz Afridi informs Dawn.com.

He continues, “Cost is an important factor and free electricity was just one part of it."

The availability of skilled workers and lath machine operators meant that running an arms factory was always cheaper in Darra.

Sadly, that is not the case anymore.

A booming business in a declining industry

In spite of a deep reliance on the arms manufacturing industry in Darra, few are able to fully revive and restore the trade.

“No one is trying to develop the sector as it is considered a mess for law and order by successive governments,” another local, Siraj Afridi chimes in.

With the Fata merger, some people were happy that a separate industrial estate would be established for arms productions— where their units would be legal and regulated while electricity would be provided on cheap industrial rates.

Read: Regularisation of Darra weapons trade crucial task for KP govt

“But there are still others who think that the merger would not be good. For example, a shop in Darra bazaar is available for just Rs1500 a month rent. While it is really cheap to rent a shop and start an arms business or open a workshop, but acquiring a plot at an industrial estate would be more expensive,” Siraj added.

Market instability keeps gunsmiths from passing on the trade to their children.
Market instability keeps gunsmiths from passing on the trade to their children.

Shahzada, another gunsmith, tells Dawn.com, “there is no electricity and most of the time we have to use solar panels. But the solar panels can’t run a lath machine, and as a result the cost of production goes up but the prices of guns are on the decline in the market.”

It takes a week to complete a 9 mm pistol but it fetches a good price ranging from Rs 15, 000 to Rs 25,000, depending on the model and final finish of the gun. But with the high cost of electricity, these prices often fluctuate.

In addition, shipping the weapons to other parts of the country has its own set of problems.

“If there is another operation the entire town would be closed for months and no one would come to buy your guns afterwards,” Shahzada lamented, adding that because of an unregulated sector, it was illegal to ship even shot guns to the rest of the country.

“Our arms shipment are caught by police and then claimed that they were intended for ‘large scale’ terrorism. Most of the time these shipments consist of shot guns used for hunting,” he added.

For Shahzada and other gunsmiths like him, the fluctuating and unreliable ebb and flow of the market keeps them from passing on the age-old trade to their children.