There is a growing disillusionment among the middle class that the police can effectively secure the country.
Fearful Pakistanis seek safety in guns
LAHORE // Mishal Muneer was 17 when she learned how to shoot a gun. Her father, an avid hunter, had brought home a new Walther P22 pistol and, seeing his daughter's interest, encouraged her to join Lahore's only gun club. "I think it's important for everyone to learn how to use a gun and shoot effectively," the high school student said. But Mishal had another reason for wanting to learn how to shoot. "I think self-defence has become integral to surviving in Pakistan. With crime engulfing the country it's each to his own, or her own, in my case." The Lahore Gun Club, in an upmarket part of Lahore, is testament to a growing disillusionment among the middle class that the police can effectively secure the country. Azad, who runs the club, said over the past few months there had been an increase in the number of people joining. "I get a lot more queries from people interested in learning how to shoot," he said. "With the security situation in the country deteriorating, it seems many believe learning how to work a gun is essential." And Mishal is not the only woman who believes that a gun is her best chance at security. In the past year, the club has gone from no female members to three. Pakistan has been swept by a wave of militancy that is reaching out from the lawless tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan and deep into the urban centres. Though guns are not much of a safeguard against suicide blasts, many hope they can serve as a deterrent to the stream of kidnappings, murders and street crimes that have become more common in recent months. In the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the military has been waging war with Taliban-allied militants, the situation is more dire. "With the growing Talibanisation of the country, most people feel that it's each to his own," said retired Brig Mahmood Shah, who has served as security chief of the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies. "Having a gun makes everyone feel safer." Brig Shah said increased demand had pushed the price of a Kalashnikov in Peshawar, the capital of NWFP, from 15,000 Pakistani rupees (Dh700) to 70,000 rupees. Abid Noor, 40, who lives in Peshawar, refuses to leave home without a loaded AK-47. Every morning when he bids farewell to his wife before heading for work, he runs through a mental checklist of his belongings: briefcase, watch, packed lunch and a Kalashnikov. The latter is a recent addition to his list. "I only began carrying it two to three months ago and now I don't leave home without it," said Mr Noor, who works at the government's planning and development department in Peshawar. It is hard to gauge the number of Pakistanis carrying arms. Some estimates put the number of small arms in the nation of 172 million people at more than 20 million, most of them unlicensed. In NWFP, a haven for insurgents and with a population of about two million, is thought there are more than half a million illegal small arms and light weapons. Mr Noor said he was forced to travel armed after a number of his friends were targeted. "One of my acquaintances 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." Others friends were kidnapped, robbed or threatened. Mr Noor said it was evident he could no longer depend on the police for protection. "I think the police are doing the best they can but it's not enough. I need to try and save myself also." It was the experience of his friend Muhammed Javed Afridi that cemented his decision. Mr Afridi, 35, was driving home last year when he was kidnapped by five masked men, carrying AK-47s. Blindfolded, he was led to a house where he was chained to a bed for 25 days. "They began negotiating with my family for ransom. They wanted six million rupees." But, even before his family started to arrange the funds, Mr Afridi was able to cut through his chains, climb onto the roof and jump his way to freedom. Shortly after, he told police about the kidnappers' hideout, hoping they would arrest them. Instead, they gave him four temporary permits to carry automatic assault rifles. "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." Mr Afridi said guns have become essential for his safety as well as the protection of his wife and five children. "People are picking up guns because they feel there is no law and order in the country," said Ayesha Siddiqua Agha, an Islamabad-based defence analyst. "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 privatised." But obtaining a licence is not easy. "Only the prime minister has the right to issue a licence for a Kalashnikov or a prohibited weapon," said NWFP's former home minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao. "For non-prohibited weapons such as shotguns and pistols, the provincial government can issue a licence which is only valid for that province." As a result, the waiting time for a licence can extend from months to years, resulting in many people taking up illegal arms. . Farooq Mazhar Khan, the chief of police in Lahore, where earlier this month four people were killed in a single week during street robberies, said his department has seen a marked increase in the numbers of cases of illegal weapons. "It's like nothing we've seen before," he says. "Complaints of illegal weapons are more common now than before." Though the government has launched amnesties for youngsters to turn in illegal weapons, even the police admit the number of illegal guns is becoming impossible to control. "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 Lahore police chief. "They just don't want to wait for the police to do their work." * The National