Gul Hayat is honest about how much he loved his guns. Loved, being past tense. He doesn’t feel the same way anymore, which is unusual for someone from Pakistan’s tribal belt.
“We didn’t treat people as humans,” he says. “A few men would roam around with guns, which made us happy, and we would often beat people because they didn’t have weapons.”
He is talking about his home in Mohmand in what was called Fata, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, at a time when it was awash with weapons, not because it was particularly more violent than say any other part of Pakistan, but because it was just the way things were.
Today there is no Fata and as men like Gul Hayat are discovering, they don’t need the weapons as they did before.
It was quite normal for men from the tribes to ensure they carried a weapon when they travelled. This is, after all, the place where the 1901 FCR law applied and tribes had their own way of maintaining law and order or protecting themselves. The gun culture grew even more entrenched when supplies were linked to the Afghan war in the 1970s. And of course, terrorism post-9/11 ratcheted that up. The Pakistan government once tried to induce tribal chiefs to lay down their weapons, but nobody bought it.
But in the decade of developments since 9/11, there has been the realisation that there is something wrong with average people having to arm themselves to the teeth. For one, several security operations have largely cleared the area of militants over roughly eight years.
Then, it was decided to end this area’s isolation from the rest of Pakistan. So this year, Fata’s seven tribal districts―Bajaur, Mohmand, Orakzai, South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Kurram, Khyber―were merged (along with the regions such as Bannu and Kohat) with the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But the change has been more than just administrative. As peace returned and the presence of the state began to be felt, the need for weapons waned.
So with the exception of Darra Adam Khel, markets such as Miranshah and Ekka Ghund that sold weapons have been slowly going out of business. “That time has passed when weapons were bought and sold,” says Nasrullah, a dealer. “This is the era of education and do other business. No one is interested in weapons anymore.”
In Ekka Ghund, before 2008, there were dozens of shops but today just two remain.
Muhammad Rafiq is another dealer who had to make the switch. “I owned a weapons shop earlier,” he says. “Now I sell naan.” He is happy because he makes around Rs 30,000 a month. “After working day and night, I can sleep in peace,” he says. “There was a risk of weapons being caught and financial loss with the weapon’s business. It was also worrying what they would be used for.”
Aside from dealers, men like Hazrat Wali, who did repairs, also find themselves looking for new work. “Now hardly one person comes in during the week to get a small weapon repaired,” he says. “Back then, all types of weapons were brought for repairs, including official ones.”
An elderly tribesmen explained that in the past they felt proud about having a weapon. “We used to even sell our lands to buy one to defend ourselves from rival tribesmen,” he says. “But now we feel that in the presence of the writ of the state, if anyone attacks me, they will face the government forces.”