Bannu: Not long ago, one couldn’t have imagined the once sworn enemies sitting together in the same hujra without resorting to violence of the grievous kind. And what’s more, with no weapons to protect themselves from each other or deter a threat. None even to brandish in the streets, something that most men did in North Waziristan Agency (NWA), with or without engaging in blood feuds.
That’s what I saw when I recently returned to my village in North Waziristan, two years after the military operation against militants started in June 2014. The operation displaced over one million people from the region.
The love of weapons runs in the blood of tribesmen, reinforced by an indigenous justice system that upholds the biblical law of an eye for an eye. In absence of government writ and courts, the culture serves as deterrence to crime and misdemeanor. But the security forces seems to have achieved what authorities in the tribal areas couldn’t despite deweaponization campaigns every now and then – taking away the tribesmen’s weapons and with it, the unwritten rule for retaliation in case of an offence.
“I feel quite relaxed in this [weaponless] environment as our life before the military operation was no life at all,” says Shaukat Ali, a resident of Khaddi village in NWA. “We were totally at the mercy of militants, living under constant fear. If the current drive of deweaponization continues, it would revive prospects for peace in the region.”
The security forces have collected weapons from the houses and arms markets of Waziristan Agency during Operation Zarb-E- Azb, a military operation conducted by Pakistan army against militants of all stripes. A strict ban on weapons has been imposed since the army declared the area as “clear”, with the displaced people returning to the agency.
Among the returnees are Haji Toor Khan* and his family who have fought a long and bloody dispute with the family of Malik Suleman Khan* for 30 years. Both sides have lost 12 precious lives to the tribal dispute. Toor Khan has yet to take revenge – or badal, as the custom is locally known – for the killing of two of his kinsmen from Malik Suleman Khan in a feud over land.
Now both maliks – or tribal chiefs – come across each other on daily basis, even sit together peacefully, without showing any signs of enmity or desire for vendetta.
The case of the two maliks burying the hatchet is not an isolated one. In North Waziristan where every village has families waging endless violent disputes on petty issues, sworn enemies have had to learn to live with each other under the steady gaze of military, no matter how.
While local tribal customs and an abiding culture of honour and badal has promoted prevalence of guns as deterrence in absence of government writ in the lawless tribal areas, it was in 1979 that the region – indeed the entire country – became awash with weapons. With the arrival of Klashnikov culture in Pakistan in the wake of Afghan mujahideen’s resistance to Russian intervention in Afghanistan, supported by Pakistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia, arms proliferated in the border region because this where the mujahideen were trained and armed to fight the Red Army.
“Pakistan’s efforts were supported by huge influxes of money from Saudi Arabia and the United States; eventually $6–$8 billion would be distributed to the clerics waging jihad,” says Shuja Nawaz in the research paper “FATA – A Most Dangerous Place” published by the Washington based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Once again, outside funding that was intended for a particular short-term political purpose provoked lasting and unintended social consequences that undercut the intentions of its original financiers.”
In recent years, says the paper, these mullahs have adopted a “Kalashnikov culture,” heading up militias that enforce their obscurantist interpretations of Sharia law even in villages and city neighborhoods beyond FATA, in the nearby settled areas of Pakistan. “They have killed more than 600 maliks in the past two years, and they regularly lead deadly raids against military and police installations.”
With the advent of Russians in Afghanistan, tribal areas in general and Waziristan in particular turned into an international bazaar for arms and ammunitions provided to Afghan mujahedeen and local tribesmen to fight against Russian Army inside Afghanistan. This created arms markets in Mirali and Miranshah, the two main towns of North Waziristan. In absence of a local economy, industry and employment, arms business boomed in the region, becoming a lucrative source for earning.
“Lethal weapons like AK 47, heavy machine guns, missiles of short and long range and even rocket launchers were easily available for affordable prices in the local markets,” says Malik Pazeer Gul*, an old tribal chief. “Heaps of explosives could be seen in the markets and in the houses of the arms and ammunition dealers.”
Writing for South Asia Defence and Strategic Studies, Debalina Chatterjee explains the Klashnikov culture in Pakistan: “During the war, prices of the Kalashnikovs in Pakistan’s arms bazaar ranged from $1500 to $3000. This was when the demands for these weapons had exceeded the supply. However, as the Soviets had to withdraw in the late 1980s, the prices reached $700 and by the year 2000, these guns were available for just $300. The region of Baluchistan is reported to possess one gun per family and the city of Karachi has become home to more than one lakh small arms.”
Before Kalashnikov was introduced to the tribal region, the tribesmen used to have locally manufactured guns called Daraywall guns – made in Darra Adam Khel, a semi tribal area situated between Kohat and Peshawar.
“When Kalashnikov was adopted as “jewelry of the tribesmen” and heavy weapons were stored in each and every house, the state of tribal feuds also changed alarmingly,” say Pazeer Gul. “Where once light weapons were used to settle scores, people took to using heavy weapons against opponent tribes and whole tribes were forced to migrate to safer places after they started targeting each other.”
When the army announced military offensive in North Waziristan on June 15, 2014, people left all of their belongings including weapons behind. According to military sources, many hid their weapons in deep trenches dug inside their houses. Using metal detectors, the army combed the area for weapons and took away arms and ammunition. In absence of official data, it is hard to know the number of weapons confiscated but keeping in view proliferation of arms in the region, local tribesmen say the figure runs in hundreds of thousands.
When repatriation started earlier this year, people came back to a totally different environment. There is not a single person seen with weapon on his body or inside the house in the entire agency.
“Due to the arms culture, we have long lived in a hell,” said Hameed Khan, a local of NWA. “We have so many orphans and widows in our area due to feuds and gun violence. This is not the age of arms. We must focus on educating our next generation.”
Before the operation, people used to enjoy festive firing in the air on the occasion of marriages, circumcisions and Eid celebrations. Many valuable lives were lost to this trend that had become something of a local custom, with the killers often going unidentified and unpunished when bullets falling from the sky killed someone.
“If we get rid of the curse of aerial firing, I think it would be a great achievement,” said Sharifullah Khan Dawar, a resident of NWA who works as Director Audit for Fata.
However, local tribesmen expressed concern that there might be tribes with weapons in their possession still, creating an imbalance of power in a tribal society and making others vulnerable.
“I fear this state of partial deweaponisation will create severe imbalance of power in the area,” says Abdul Qayum Khan, a local of NWA. “In absence of proper laws and law enforcing agencies in the tribal region, one cannot guaranty peace.”
Irfan Burki, a youth from South Waziristan favors deweaponisation but insists it must be for all, without any discrimination.
“You have to disarm all across the board or weaponise all to ensure balance of power as was before the operation,” Burki suggests, adding that in a place like the tribal region, selective deweaponisation will have serious implications for the inhabitants.
“It is not fair to give arms to maliks and influential people while leaving the common man without any protection,” said Burki.