Gunfire echoes through a dusty northwest tribal town, the soundtrack to Pakistan’s biggest arms black market, where Kalashnikovs welded from scrap metal are cheaper than smartphones and sold on an industrial scale.
Darra Adamkhel, a town surrounded by hills some 35 kilometres (20 miles) south of the city of Peshawar, was a hub of criminal activity for decades. Smugglers and drug runners were common and everything from stolen cars to fake university degrees could be procured.
This generations-old trade in the illicit boomed in the 1980s: The mujahideen began buying weapons there for Afghanistan’s battle against the Soviets, over the porous border.
Later, the town became a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, who enforced their strict rules and parallel system of justice — infamously beheading Polish engineer Piotr Stanczak there in 2009.
Now Darra is clean of all but the arms, yet the gunsmiths in the bazaar say the region’s improved security and authorities’ growing intolerance for illegal weaponry are withering an industry that sustained them for decades.
“(The) Nawaz Sharif government has established checkpoints everywhere, business is stopped,” said Khitab Gul, 45.
Gul is known in Darra for his replicas of Turkish and Bulgarian-made MP5 submachine guns, one of the most popular weapons in the world, widely used by organisations such as America’s FBI SWAT teams.
The MP5 can retail for thousands of dollars. Gul’s version, which comes with a one-year guarantee, costs roughly 7,000 rupees, or $67 — and, he claims, it works perfectly.
Gul then puts on a demonstration, test-firing his MP5 in the small outer yard of his workshop — first the single shot mode, then firing in a burst.
A Darra-made Kalashnikov, Gul says, can sell for as little as $125, cheaper than most smartphones. “The workers here are so skilled that they can copy any weapon they are shown,” he explains.
“In past 10 years I have sold 10,000 guns, and had zero complaints,” he claims.
In Gul’s sweltering workshop, employees shout over the roar of electrical generators as they expertly cut and drill through metal brought from the shipyards of Karachi, far to the south on the Arabian Sea.
The main bazaar which cuts through the town used to hold nothing but tiny gun shops crammed together, their gleaming wares displayed openly on racks as customers test-fired into the air above.