More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 79

Over the next few weeks, allmediascotland.com is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

Journalists on expense accounts all stay up at the Pearl Continental Hotel, or PC as it is known, and it is all very plush up there. I only visited occasionally to get an alcoholic drink: you showed your passport and affirmed you were not a Muslim and you could imbibe in the bar on the top floor. However, for all its lack of facilities, I much preferred the seedy ambience of Green’s, where the guests all seemed slightly mysterious and you could readily imagine that they were up to no good.

In Green’s, in 1991, bin Laden agreed to an alliance with Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal. Four years later, undercover CIA agents seized his associate in his room at Green’s. He was freshly over the border from Afghanistan. Peshawar is the nearest point foreign agents can safely get to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. It is also sufficiently lawless allow them to operate with relative impunity. At least two journalists I know of have been found dead in their rooms in Green’s under suspicious circumstances. I liked the place.

In the remote and mountainous region beyond Peshawar the police have no jurisdiction at all. Foreigners are forbidden to enter. Like the British did until departure in 1947, the government of Pakistan secures the road and the area one hundred metres either side. Beyond that, it is a wild no-man’s land where gun rule survives tempered, from time to time, by a system of political agents and tribal elders: a system untouched since the British entered the area, failed to control it and promptly withdrew ignominiously.

The dominant tribe is the Afridi and nobody moves up or down the Khyber Pass without their assent. Little has changed around here. Not even the towns and villages which are little more than vast gun factories.

The gun factories of the NW frontier are in villages like Sakhakot and Darra Adem Khel. Both are untidy, Wild West style villages of two storey wood and adobe buildings lining a dusty main street.

On the main streets every single shop on the sidewalk is a gun shop. You can buy virtually every imaginable weapon. Most are copies: copies of everything from the ubiquitous, modern AK 47 or the Chinese T-56, through the Pakistani Kalakov machine gun and the 8mm VIP, to the modern American M-16. The elderly Lee Enfield .303 is still a favourite in these parts and is manufactured for the tribesmen who prize its accuracy. Then there are 12 bore pump action shotguns, .22 pistols, pen guns, walking-stick guns and, even, copies of the latest laser sighted US weapons as supplied to Pakistani special forces. This last item is available for a mere 50,000 rupees – around $600.

This is a craft industry and these men are still using the traditional skills of wood and metalwork. They say that if you bring them a weapon they’ve never seen before then, within 48 hours, they will have fashioned a copy. There are a few hand operated tools but, for the main part, this is a labour intensive operation.

These skills were, apparently, brought to the northwest frontier in the 1890s by a Punjabi gunsmith on the run for murder. The Afridi tribesmen learned from him and the knowledge has been passed from father to son. Hereabouts, they are intensely proud of what they see as a craft industry. There is no morose reflection on the damage which the product might do.