“Oh, I cannot take you to Darra,” the Afghan fellow insisted. He ran a clothing shop in our hotel during the evenings, and specialized in shepherding around random tourists during the daytime; though, at this juncture, tourists were few in Peshawar.
Darra had been labeled off-limits for the tourist crowd for some time, though a few intrepid backpacking types had managed to find themselves there through strokes of random luck – and the Pakistani police would single them out at one of the checkpoints on either end of the town, arrest them, extort a pile of cash from them, then call their hotel and demand they send a driver to pick them up. It’s a town most indicative of the wild frontier attitude in the Northwest Frontier Province, a real smuggler’s bazaar for the twenty-first century rather than simply the fake one just west of Peshawar that only sells Chinese made appliances at duty-free prices.
So, we decided to head elsewhere and see if another hotel/tour company could assist us in our mission to visit the famed and secret town of Darra. We were bent on a private driver, though guidebooks stated it was not entirely necessary: one simply needed to find a public bus heading south and say they were going onward to the town of Kohat, then get off at Darra. However this plan was not foolproof, as the tribal police inside of Darra did not take kindly to those who arrived without first paying them off.
We found an eager group of gentlemen at another hotel in the old town, call the Rose, where the hotelier spoke English fast and furiously – chastising our countriesâ€™ governments, going on about Canada and England and Iraq, we sat and drank the sweetened green tea of the region while waiting for their fixer to arrive. He was a younger fellow, in his mid-twenties, attending university during the day normally and running off on occasion to assist stupid tourists in their mission to visit the sealed smuggling town of Darra. This was his home town, he said, and his tribe of origin – what the Afghan lacked was local connections that one who has grown up in Darra can offer. The price was not cheap for the region, at sixty US dollars – but he insisted it could not be negotiated, as the police needed to be paid off, both in the government regions and the tribal regions. Soon enough, away we went – and I was implored to take off my bright green western looking coat and look a little more….. local.
Darra is only twenty kilometers south of Peshawar, but the distance does not do justice to the complicated politics of the Northwest Frontier Province: made up of twenty-four tribal areas, crossing the internal border is like crossing a real border. Police have their checkpoints set up, and if they see tourists in a private car, you’re bound to get stopped. “Just tell them you were heading to Kohat, and never stopped at Darra,” he said. We nodded. I checked that I had a spare memory card for my camera, in case I needed to hand one over for confiscation – the blank one would go, naturally.
Rolling farmlands lined a well-paved road south of Peshawar, and soon we left the policed confines of the city limits and our guide/driver began putting his foot to the floor. The space in between the Peshawar canton and the tribal region five kilometres south was mostly lawless, a place unprotected by either tribal or state officials. Banditry was rife, he said, as the muddled administrative issues of who should follow up on a robbery in the area paralyzed most departments while emboldening criminals. It was rally racing all over again, though soon enough we passed through another checkpoint – the beginning of the Darra Adam Khel tribal region in Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan.
We had arrived in Darra, though our guide was hesitant to take us deeper into town. And aside from hash and guns and other exciting products for purchase, what made Darra such an attractive place? Well, it dates back to a hundred years ago – tribesmen in the area have a special proven talent for being shown the schematics for a firearm, and duplicating it exactly within five days. Their skills are widely renowned, and the quality of their weapons – at least for firing a few hundred rounds – is astounding. We were here to witness some of the last handmade, blacksmithed, guns on the planet.
I had expected some rustic black-powder weapons, but walking into the blacksmith’s shop proved that they were not interested in anything so ancient. No, they were busy replicating a Heckler & Koch nine millimeter pistol, complete with rifled barrel, full metal frame, beautifully manufactured wood grips and even a laser sighting device under the barrel! The quality was immaculate, and the smiths worked away at these things with just the most basic of tools – an electric buffer, a vice, and several tinker’s hammers. They were also busy replicating an MP5 submachine gun, with plastic frame and all. They offered to let us fire it – “just point it into the hills over there,” they said, and it fired immaculately.
I tried to press them on who, in fact, was buying such large numbers of submachine guns and pistols in this region. Who are their buyers? Who needs so many MP5s? They said that it was the local tribesmen, who supported the blacksmiths and their trade. Suspected Taliban insurgents? Not likely, they said – the range of these weapons is short, and Taliban need long range weapons to be effective against NATO Forces. Or do they?
Our guide showed us another workshop where the beloved AK-47 was being replicated, as well as a Beretta semi-automatic shotgun. The original Italian model would run you around five thousand US dollars, but here, they were selling this model for only three hundred and fifty. As well, there are more troubling weapons to be had in Darra – including pen guns, cell phone guns, knife guns – all of the reasons why it takes so long to get through airport screening these days. Rumour has it that when tourists visit Darra, the Pakistani police revel in catching them – they inevitably come back with a pen gun or two, a few ounces of hash, and are way up shit creek if they get caught with these things. Foreigners need permits to have firearms within Peshawar, though the laws are different in the tribal areas. They will let you buy one, no doubt, knowing that when the police confiscate it they will simply return it in the same condition as it was bought.
With our fun completed in Darra, and losing a bit of hearing firing off their guns, we headed back north – but first I swapped out my camera’s memory card with a blank one, remembered the story that we were in Kohat, and breezed past the police checkpoints. While Darra may be something of a taboo tourist spot that gets all the media attention, the insidious fact remains about Darra Adam Khel and the Northwest Frontier Province: all of Afghanistan’s major offensives originate near the border area with Pakistan. Are tribesmen simply buying these things for storage in their home? Who is buying so many automatic weapons?
The connection between Northwest Frontier Province and Afghanistan’s continuing insurgency with the Taliban is more than coincidental, and Darra, at the least, hints at a few answers for this.
Author – Sean Rorison