Darra Adam Khel, Pakistan – Nestled in the eastern foothills of the Safed Koh mountains in northwestern Pakistan, a jumble of low buildings forms a bazaar that has been the centre of guns and drugs in this part of the world for more than a century.
In the two-kilometre stretch of the Darra Adam Khel market, about 140km west of the capital Islamabad, there are dozens of weapons factories, manufacturing everything from crude copies of Chinese pistols to sophisticated facsimiles of the US-made M16 automatic rifle or the Austrian Glock semiautomatic pistol.
The air is thick with the smell of gunpowder and machined metal, as gunsmiths work industriously at a trade that has employed generations of craftsmen here in the Khyber tribal district.
“We’ve been doing this since the British were ruling here – my father, and his father before him,” says Banat Khan, 67, the owner of a gun shop.
You can pick up a local copy of an M16 rifle, standard issue to US troops stationed in neighbouring Afghanistan, for as little as 30,000 Pakistani rupees ($214), or about a quarter of the cost of the original, at Khan’s shop.
The semi-automatic AK-74 Krinkov assault rifle – an upgrade to the venerable AK-47 – is the market’s bestseller, however, priced at just 10,000 Pakistani rupees ($72). If you’re on a budget, a basic pistol will set you back just 3,000 Pakistani rupees ($21).
Darra’s marketplace has survived for decades, thriving in a legal grey area that puts it outside of Pakistani law as part of the country’s erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Weapons manufactured here have fuelled both the first Afghan war against Soviet forces and, later, the Pakistan Taliban’s fight against the Pakistani state itself since 2007.
All that, however, is about to change.
Amid change, uncertainty
In May 2018, Pakistan’s parliament passed an historic law that would see FATA – until now governed directly by Islamabad through a colonial system of “political agents” who wielded extraordinary powers in their areas of jurisdiction – merge with its neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.
The law sees the repeal of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a British law that gave political agents wide-ranging executive, judicial and legislative powers over each of the seven tribal districts, home to more than 4.6 million people.
Pakistani criminal and constitutional laws did not apply to citizens of FATA. They also did not have recourse to the court system. Governance was historically weak in these areas, with FATA’s districts consistently ranking at the bottom of socioeconomic indicators.
Darra Adam Khel, a town of several thousand residents, most employed by the gun industry, has thrived in the nebulous enforcement of laws that this arrangement created, serving as a hub for weapons manufacturing.
Pakistani law mandates that all gun owners obtain a licence from either the provincial or federal governments, with certain types of higher calibre weapons (such as automatic rifles) more tightly restricted. While the laws are exhaustive, their application is often selective, and government arms licences are often distributed as a form of political patronage.
The manufacture of all types of weapons is tightly controlled through a system of licences, allowing factories to produce only a specific type of weapon.
None of that applies, of course, to Darra Adam Khel.
“People could buy a gun with freedom,” says Azmat Khan Akharwal, 55, a local chieftain. “Whether on their own licence or in some other way. We would not ask them for their licence.”
‘Our traditions will be damaged’
Now, however, Akharwal says, the thousands employed by the gun industry in Darra are afraid of how the merger with KP will affect their industry.
Among tribal leaders, who enjoyed considerable influence under the FCR as conduits of the political agent’s power over citizens, the arguments against the implementation of the merger centre on ideas of freedom and tradition.
“We have been … living our lives under traditions for many years, and we have been doing well under it,” says Akharwal, the tribal chieftain.
“Now if we bring courts or other systems here, things that we are not familiar with, it will affect our freedom. Our traditions will also be damaged.”
For those with less access to power, however, there also appears a preference for the existing systems to stay, based on both familiarity with them and uncertainty of what comes next.
“We are not familiar with the police,” says Sahib Khan, 28, a gunsmith in Darra’s main bazaar, as his daughter tugs at his shirt. “The old system, I think that that system was fine. Even if there was the FCR, we were familiar with it, we understood it.”
Khan, whose family has manufactured guns for generations, says he is not attached to the business, but does need the income, and lacks the means to do anything else.
“I never even went to school. I spent my childhood here, in this workshop,” says Silawar Khan, his brother.
“We know only this work … if I find a job anywhere I will pack up and go!”
‘In our sights’
The government, for its part, says it is working around the clock to implement the Supreme Court’s orders and to extend regular governance to FATA.
“We are progressing towards [the merger] on a war footing,” says Ajmal Wazir, the KP chief minister’s adviser on tribal affairs. “These deprivations of the last 70 years, we are going to finish them.”
Wazir outlined the government’s plans to extend the jurisdiction of the provincial government’s health and education programmes to the tribal areas, and to establish courts in each tribal district.
On Darra’s gun bazaar, he was more circumspect, saying that while a number of plans existed, no concrete proposal had yet been decided upon.
“We will make a mechanism for this, and if any legislation is required we will pass that too,” he says. “This thing is in our sights, this issue of people’s livelihoods. If we can find a way out that is positive then we will definitely do so”.
For those in Darra’s bazaar, though, the fear is palpable.
“The government says that we tribals have given many sacrifices [during the war against the Taliban],” says Banat Khan, the gun shop owner.
“We are Pakistani, by Allah’s will we will continue to sacrifice, why not? It is our country.
“But we demand just one thing: sacrifice one thing [for us], and do not take our freedom from us.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.