SHIKARPUR: His eyes are even more terrifying than the fully-loaded AK-47 he’s holding.
Ten-year-old Sajid may not know his multiplication tables but the blank, unwavering gaze is of a much older man who has known death at close quarters. And, what it costs. “The price of a bullet for a Kalashnikov used to be Rs45 but due to inflation, it’s gone up to Rs48,” he says, easily hefting the seven-kilogramme gun as he swiftly unloads the magazines. With the drive against militants in Fata, tribal warfare in upper Sindh fell off the radar of the security agencies.
But the issue is far from being resolved. Habib Goth is a small village near Shikarpur where children younger than Sajid – the youngest is an eight-year-old – are trained to use sophisticated weapons for their defence during tribal clashes. Other than AK-47s, their toys include G-lll rifles, rocket launchers, light machine guns, RPG-7 and antiaircraft guns.
From the border areas of Balochistan, Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan, the weapons find their way to Habib Goth. “Retired policemen, Rangers and some FC personnel help smuggle these weapons to tribal heads in Shikarpur, Jacobabad and Ghotki,” reveals a local police official.
“These weapons are later distributed among each tribe and also sold to families in the village for self defence”. Former DPO Shikarpur Khadim H. Rind says gypsies from Balochistan also bring caches to the Golo Daro forest area in Shikarpur. And this is one head of ‘household’ expense nobody scrimps on in this dirt-poor village.
The guns are often sold on credit to poorer families, some of whom pay back in installments. “Even the cheapest weapon costs as much as a buffalo – Rs45,000 to Rs50,000 – but we need these to defend ourselves during robberies or tribal clashes,” says Sajid’s 45-year-old grandmother Sakina.
“We train our boys to use guns so that they don’t die like their uncle,” spits Sakina. In 2006, her eldest son Muhammad Yasir was working on his farm when members of the Jatoi tribe attacked him. “His only crime was that he belonged to the [rival] Maher tribe; the Jatois’ were looking to settle scores.” Shikarpur is known for its tribal wars and crime, both of which have destroyed its economic and social fabric.
The writ of the government doesn’t work; police officials are unable to deal with tribal chieftains who possess more sophisticated weapons than the government. With just 2,400 policemen to defend a population of approximately 3 million, at the end of the day, it’s every man for himself.
“There are certain no-go areas where normal policing is not possible” explains former DPO Shikarpur Abdul Khaliq Sheikh. “The terrain is rugged in some areas; in others, the criminals are so well entrenched and equipped that LEA’s have to be extra vigilant,” he says.
Rind is one of the few officers who seized a number of weapons, including anti-aircraft guns from Golo Daro. But he complains about tribal structures that make law enforcement more difficult.
“If a member of a tribe gets shot during an encounter, police officers are hauled up before a jirga and ordered to pay compensation.” Why would any law enforcer bother, he asks? “By procuring such weapons, these tribes are clearly signaling that they’re prepared to declare war on the state. And this infiltration can only be controlled through a major operation with the help of the army.” The government’s arms licence policy hasn’t helped.
The Pakistan Arms Ordinance says that anyone who “sells, or keeps, offers or exposes for sale” unlicensed weapons such as “a cannon, grenade, bomb, rocket or a light or heavy automatic or semi-automatic weapon, such as Kalashnikov, a G-lll rifle or any other type of assault rifle” or even ammunition shall be punishable with imprisonment for up to 14 years and not less than 7 years, fine and forfeiture of property. But officials scoff at the efficacy of the law.
“Hundreds of criminals have been arrested under this law but very few have been convicted,” says Sheikh. Significantly, the ordinance doesn’t prescribe any qualifying criteria for the issuance of a license nor does it place a limit on the number of weapons issued to one person.
Earlier this year, the interior ministry sanctioned 25 licenses for each MNA. But in Sindh, the home minister can sanction an unlimited amount. And such policies, argue activists, lead to the weaponisation of the ministers’ constituencies and create an enduring nexus between arms and politics. “Giving ministers the permission to keep arms gives them negotiating power over the local sardars in their constituencies, who maintain private armies,” explains social activist Naveed Abro.
“In order to hang on to power, the ministers support these sardars.” “The more arms you possess, the more powerful you are – especially during elections,” says Paryal Marri who is a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Sukkur.
Voters are later armed by the winning party as a ‘goodwill gesture’. “There are also reports that the zakat and ushr funds received by federal and provincial ministers to eradicate poverty have been used to purchase illegal weapons,” alleges Abro. “But because the police are helpless, there is no one to question.” Abro blames the LG system introduced by former president Pervez Musharraf for this increased weaponisation. “The chieftains dominated the LG system in the rural areas and became all-powerful,” he argues.
“They acquired weapons through their influential positions and this raised the levels of violence in upper Sindh.” But former District Nazim of Shikarpur Muhammad Arif Khan Maher differs. “If this was the case, why has weaponisation increased over the past two years?” he asks. “Until the government improves the system of education in the district, the law and order situation in the area is likely to deteriorate,” he insists. But a walk around Habib Goth puts paid to this idea.
The only school in the village is primarily used as a bunker by gangs during shootouts. Small wonder, boys such as Sajid say they want to be gangsters when they grow up. “Children are not stupid, you know,” argues Sajid’s grandmother Sakina. “The poor and the police aren’t respected; they don’t have any say in the affairs of our village.”