I Hung Out in a Warlord’s Arms Factory
I went to the north of Pakistan last year to make a film. Before I left, my friend Sami got in touch and said that he’d been to Pakistan before too, and needed to tell me about the time he visited a warlord’s factory there. His trip was in 2005, when Pakistan was a slightly safer place, marginally less affected by American drone strikes, Islamic radicalism, and the ISI’s (Pakistan’s secret service) covert funding of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Sami went to Peshawar, the capital of the Pashtuns, in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. From there he headed into the federally administered tribal areas, a region of the country that governs itself free from the shackles of the Islamabad government. It’s also where Taliban fighters hide and where they slip in and out of Afghanistan from. I talked to him about the warlord’s arms factory and the little coke and heroin den he kept just off it.
VICE: First off, this wasn’t a legal arms factory, right?
Sami: I’m pretty sure it’s illegal. That whole area of Pakistan follows a law unto themselves. We could only get into the area by being smuggled under a blanket through a police checkpoint, so it’s not the most above board of places. But everyone there seemed very jolly. This short guy called, I think, Prince Al Haseem, bounced up to us when we arrived at our hotel in Peshawar and told us that he’d sort out anything we wanted to do. The number two thing on his list was a trip to the arms factory on the border of Afghanistan, about a half-hour drive from Peshawar.
It’s on the border with Afghanistan?
Yeah, it’s down south in tribally administrated areas. Warlords have always controlled it. The Taliban were in charge of the Swat area when we were there, so we couldn’t really go over there, but that area wasn’t really religiously active. Peshawar was, but the tribal areas just wanted to get on with life and weren’t that keen on Pakistani or Islamabad rule at all.
It was obviously a dangerous place at the time, but do you think you’d be able to get there again now?
No, I think it’s an absolute no-go at the moment. The Taliban arsenal is much stronger there and the area seems to be completely shut off. I haven’t heard of any foreigners going anywhere near that area. Peshawar isn’t the most popular place to go at the moment, either.
The welcoming sign at the police checkpoint.
Even at the time, though, surely people weren’t jumping over themselves to tell you to go to arms factories?
I think it was a mix of naivety and the fact that this Prince guy had convinced us that it was going to be a great little daytrip. Prince said, “let’s go to an arms factory,” and we were like, “YES.” We only realized halfway through when he said, “Duck down, duck down; I’m going to put a blanket over your head” in the taxi that it wasn’t going to be quite as simple as he had made it out to be.
What did the area look like once you got past the checkpoint?
A lot of small Pakistani towns look very similar, but as we came into this town, we started noticing that the shops looked quite different from other ones. There were a few shotguns lying against the walls and a few of the shops were selling guns. As we came to the main high street, every single shop on it was selling guns. There were AKs, Berettas, and fake M16s in every single shop window. There were barely any food shops, just guns.