PESHAWAR: Safarish Khan’s family has for generations been in the arms business in Darra Adam Khel, a small mountainous town in northwestern Pakistan that is home to South Asia’s largest black market for hand-made replicas of deadly weapons. But, three years ago, Khan decided to switch trades.
These days, in the same shop where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather fashioned guns out of iron, Khan carves wood into rabab — the classical musical instrument indigenous to Pakistan’s northwest and neighboring Afghanistan.
“I still use the same machinery and have the same shop but now carve wood instead of iron,” Khan, 47, told Arab News at his shop as he polished the newly minted rabab sprawled across his lap.
“For years, I sold guns. Now I’m trying to bring smiles to my war-hit people through the rabab.”
Khan is one of dozens of gunsmiths and merchants in the town of about 120,000 people who have switched to a new livelihood as the “golden days of arms dealing” have ended, local elder Malik Naseem Javid said.
Javid and other elders from the area said the market was in decline due to the heavy cost of production and lack of government support. A ban on weapons’ licenses and increased restrictions on explosives had only made things worse.
In recent years, army operations against militants who have used Darra’s surrounding tribal areas to train and launch attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in part because the region had no government writ, has also driven away arms buyers and sellers.
But for 150 years before this decline began, the black market flourished, partly because it lies in an “Ilaaqa Ghair,” or no-man’s land, where the country’s laws did not apply.
Darra was formerly a part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), governed for over 150 years by a draconian colonial-era law that had denied people basic legal rights and prescribed collective punishment against entire tribes for offenses committed by an individual.
Last year, Pakistan’s Parliament passed legislation to merge the tribal regions along the Afghan border with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, a key step in ending the region’s much-criticized governance system.
Last month, the provincial KP government said the arms manufacturing industry would be developed into an industrial zone and its products would have access to national and international markets, and quality raw materials through a legalized registration process.
But many of Darra’s merchants see the government’s promises as hollow, and are already looking for alternative businesses.
They fear that government intervention will only mean higher rents and production costs at a time when business is already suffering due to ever rising prices of explosives and iron.
Shah Nawaz, 38, said his family established their business, Sarhad Arms Manufacturers, in 1956 but had converted the facility into a slipper factory.
“Due to militancy, the government banned arms licenses and explosives and other restrictions affected the arms businesses gravely. Our earnings were reduced drastically and family elders began to think of alternatives,” Nawaz told Arab News.
“So we closed our well-known arms company and started this unknown shoe business.”
Saiful Amin’s family has also been in the arms business for 80 years, with Moon Star Arms Company. Their factory on main Kohat Road now sits idle and most of the employees have been laid off.
“Our family is looking for a side business, otherwise soon we will be on the streets,” Amin told Arab News.
“To balance profit and expenses, we have leased half of the factory building to another person.”
He said 75 percent of shops in the market used to sell arms but that number had reduced to about 30 percent now.
“A few years back we would sell about 200 pistols per month but that has decreased to 50-60.”
Thousands of workers previously employed at the market are also struggling and many have turned to low-paid labor.
Nisar Khan, an expert in making the 9MM pistol, said he had done nothing but forge weapons for 30 years.
“I am seriously thinking about setting up a vegetable or fruit cart,” he said. “I have to feed my children.”
Many of Nisar Khan’s friends were also looking for alternative livelihoods, albeit reluctantly.
But Safarish Khan said he was happy to leave a trade he considered sinful.
“I am the lucky one that I could adopt making rababs as a profession,” he said with a smile.
“In these tough times, I can finally earn my living in a respectable and dignified way.”