Tuesday, January 13, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan

When Abid Noor bids farewell to his wife before leaving for work each morning, he runs a mental check to see whether he has remembered everything - his briefcase, his watch, the lunch his wife has packed and a loaded AK-47.

The AK-47, or Kalashnikov as it is commonly called in Pakistan, is a recent addition.

“I only began carrying it two to three months ago and now I don’t leave home without it,” said Mr. Noor, 40, who works at the government’s planning and development department in the northwest city of Peshawar.

Mr. Noor said he decided to travel armed after a friend, Muhammed Javed Afridi, was kidnapped by five masked men carrying AK-47s, while driving home.

Another friend “was working as principal of a school in Jamrud, and for no apparent reason he was shot dead one day as he was returning from work.”

“I think the police are doing the best they can but it’s not enough,” he said. “I need to try and save myself also.”

It’s hard to quantify the exact numbers of Pakistanis carrying arms. Some estimates put the number of small arms in the nation of 172 million at more than 20 million, most of them unlicensed.

The United States has a far larger number of weapons per capita - 210 million privately owned firearms in a nation of 300 million, according to National Rifle Association, but these are licensed.

The North West Frontier Province, a haven for insurgents with a population of about 2 million, is thought to have more than a half-million illegal small arms and light weapons.

For years, guns have been signs of prestige for young men in Pakistan, especially in the rugged tribal regions and in the Punjab, where hunting is popular.

In Peshawar and surrounding areas, guns are routinely fired into the air to show respect and at weddings to symbolize celebration. When President Asif Ali Zardari made a recent visit to the port city of Karachi, guns were fired into the air to welcome him.

But for young, middle-class professionals such as Mr. Noor, gun ownership is a recent phenomenon.

“People are picking up guns because they feel there is no law and order in the country,” said Islamabad-based defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. “The writ of the state is very weak and the police don’t have the ability to protect its citizens. As a result, security has become privatized.”

Mr. Afridi, 35, a reporter for a national newspaper, used to wave at the police on his way home from his office, where he frequently works late. Then he was kidnapped, blindfolded and taken to a house where he was chained to a bed for 25 days.

“They began negotiating with my family for ransom,” he recalled. “They wanted 6 million rupees [$80,000].” Before his family could put together the ransom, Mr. Afridi managed to cut through his chains with a pair of scissors, climb onto the roof and jump to freedom.

“After that day, I always have an AK-47 with me,” he said. “In fact, I usually have two: one for myself and one for the relative who is accompanying me.”

Retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, a former security chief of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, said increased demand had pushed the price of a Kalashnikov in Peshawar from about $200 to almost $900.

“With the growing Talibanization of the country, most people feel that it’s each to his own,” he said. “Having a gun makes everyone feel safer.”

Guns don’t provide protection against suicide bomb blasts ripping through the country but reflect concern at a rising crime rate. In Rawalpindi, once considered a peaceful city, more than 288 people were killed last year compared with 219 in 2007. Across the country, nearly 12,000 homicides were reported from January 2008 to November. Police said it was the highest toll in 10 years.

Lahore police Chief Farooq Mazhar Khan said his department has experienced a marked increase in complaints about illegal weapons. “It’s like nothing we’ve seen before,” he said.

One reason is that obtaining a license for certain weapons is not easy in Pakistan.

“Only the prime minister has the right to issue a license for a Kalashnikov,” said Aftab Khan Sherpao, a former home minister in the North West Frontier Province. “For nonprohibited weapons such as shotguns and pistols, the provincial government can issue a license, which is only valid for that province.”

The waiting time for a license can extend from months to years. Still, the Interior Ministry issued almost 50 percent more licenses for pistols and handguns in 2008 than the previous year.

The most common way to purchase a gun is through connections, said Jehangir Shahzad, a journalist who covers these issues. “You know someone who knows someone and that’s how you get a gun,” he said.

“The law and order situation has of course contributed to young people feeling like they need to pick up a gun, but it also has a lot to do with the impatience of our youth,” said Asif Zulfiqar, a former police chief in Lahore. “They just don’t want to wait for the police to do their work.”

Mr. Afridi, who was given a temporary gun permit by police after his kidnapping, disagreed. “We’re not picking up guns because we suddenly feel like doing so,” he said. “We’re picking them up because we are being forced to.”

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