Northwest Pakistan, where guns are the jewelry of men

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In his tiny shop inside the Khyber Pass near the Afghan border, Shoaib Khan pulls out his bestseller: the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.

"Every man should have at least one gun of his own," he says, briefly interrupted as three shots ring out nearby: A customer at another shop is shooting a weapon into the air to test it.

"Weapons are the jewelry of men," he smiles. "Women wear jewelry, men wear guns."

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Twelve years after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in defeat, the weapons bazaars of Pakistan's northwest are making and selling guns as if the war never ended. In part, this meets the demand of Pakistan's Pashtuns, whose tribal code enshrines revenge as the preferred form of justice. But the weaponization of this province is also a legacy of the cold war.

"Pakistanis have always loved to hunt, but it's one thing to talk about hunting rifles, and it's another thing to talk about rocket launchers," says Afrasiab Khattak, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Peshawar. "It was not until the Afghan jihad ... that we saw such weapons, and the arrival of Pakistani gun culture. It destabilizes not only Afghanistan but also the whole region. These weapons reach as far away as Sri Lanka, through smuggling."

Guns certainly have a history in this part of the world. In 1809, British explorer Mountstuart Elphinstone saw Pashtun craftsmen making muskets. By 1897, the Pashtuns were manufacturing decent copies of a British rifle. To maintain free access to the Khyber Pass, the British gave the Pashtuns broad autonomy, including the right to carry and make weapons.

Today, in tribal areas, petty arguments, such as a muttered insult, turn deadly. And the tribal code requires a family to avenge the death of their kin, even if it takes generations.

The slow economy, with especially high unemployment in tribal areas, only exacerbates the problem. And because murder statistics aren't kept in tribal areas - so-called honor killings are not considered to be murder - it's hard to measure whether the death toll has gone up or down.

Pakistan's laws don't affect tribal citizens governed by their own codes, but tribal gun dealers are still affected by politics outside their borders. Afghanistan has cut off the main source of weapons by cracking down on gun smugglers. Pakistan, through Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider, banned the open display of weapons. The ban was aimed at religious extremists and Kashmiri separatist groups operating within Pakistan, but it has also raised ire in tribal areas.

"Before the restrictions, a common shopkeeper could sell 50 guns a week," says Muhammad Alam, a shy, soft-spoken gun dealer in Landikotal. "Nowadays it's hardly 8 to 10 guns a week."

A villager hands Mr. Alam a Chinese-made AK-47 so he can estimate its value. He takes out the firing mechanism, removes the fully-loaded clip of bullets, and stares down the barrel. If a gun has been used too much, the barrel expands and the gun becomes less accurate, he explains. Alam gives his price: 6,000 rupees, or just under $100. "Mainly the people are in family feuds, and they need the weapons for their own protection," he says.

Not everyone in Landikotal carries weapons, however. Abid Ali, a college student and shopowner, says he's seen a decline in the gun culture since the war against the Soviets ended.

"I don't like guns, and I don't have any enmity with anyone so I don't carry a gun," says the tall, scruffy youth, whose store is full of sodas and hard candies. A photo of Diana, Princess of Wales, takes the favored spot over his cash register. "As people get more educated ... they fight less, and this trend is discouraged."

Nonsense, says Pervez, a driver whose truck is idling outside of a tea stall. "I have seen so many deaths, I see it daily," he says with a sigh. "People are without jobs, and what else can they do? Small arguments turn into big tragedies."

For Shoaib Khan, however, small arguments mean big business. "We are tribal people, we are least bothered by the government in the settled areas," he says, brushing aside a question about Pakistan's ban on carried weapons. "Besides, with so many family feuds, we can hardly keep up with the demand."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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