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.
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.
This guy told Sami he’d been shot.
Wow. How well hidden was this place?
Not particularly well at all. There was no high mountain pass to go through, it was just a main road. We literally just parked and went through an alleyway and that was it. We went through the alley, had some tea—everyone offers tea, it’s very hospitable—and paid our entry ticket price.
How much was that?
£30 for the day, then we had to pay an extra £15 to have some fun with the machine guns out back.
Who's in control of the town?
From what I know, individual warlords are in charge of specific parts of the tribal areas. When we popped into this town, we had to pay the local warlord what he called a ticket—it seemed closer to a bribe—to look around. Having said that, it was a bribe with benefits, as he was a great host after that and promptly showed us around his entire little town.
What was he like? Did he run the factory?
It seemed that way. He walked around not quite knowing what was going on, but he said hello to everyone we walked past and introduced us to a few. Our Urdu was pretty poor, so the response to everything was a nod and a smile and a kind of “Oh wow.”
How many people were working in the factory?
I got the feeling that the one we saw was the floor plan of a large swimming pool with numerous corridors snaking off it. I probably saw about 30 or 40 people in five or six rooms. The scale of manufacturing for the whole town suggested that there were probably more factories like that one around.
So it was 'The Town That Arms Built’ basically?
Haha. I’m not quite sure what they did before. Everyone there looked incredibly skilful; like they’d been doing it for years.
What array of weaponry was being made there?
We saw a lot of AK47s, big pump-action shotguns, M16s, and the odd handgun here and there. It was mostly shotguns and AK47s, though. I didn’t see anyone pressing ammunition. At the time, I didn’t really know what was involved in making weapons and was more taken aback by people carving out large barrels from bits of wood. The process is pretty simple, so I guess they might have done that on site.
There’s one photo of what looks like a production line. Was there a real division of labor?
Absolutely. You’d walk past these different alcoves and one person would be sitting, drilling out the inside of a barrel, the next person would be making the handle for the stock, the next would be spray-painting a specific bit of the ammo clip. Everyone would have their own little job, pretty much like a car production line, but just with guys in alcoves in Pakistan, rather than robots in Germany.
Did it seem like a good office environment?
Yeah, people seemed quite happy. Most people seemed pretty serious about what they were doing, but when we sat down with them, they were very keen to show us their handiwork. They were all pretty proud of what they’d done.
There’s a great picture of a guy holding an unusually colored piece of shotgun. The one with the pattern on it.
Yeah, I’ve done quite a lot of woodwork myself and that stock is made out of a really beautiful wood; maple or hazel. That type of wood is expensive to get ahold of and this guy had so much pride in his work. The warlord told us that he was making it as a present to one of the other warlords in the area—it was pretty impressive.
It’s nice when warlords look after each other. Where do you think these weapons were going? Who do you think was using them?
There was a crazy statistic we heard when we were in Pakistan that there was an AK47 for every three people. If you wanted to get one, it wouldn’t take very long. The majority of the guides and guards we walked around with would take weapons with them, so it all seemed very normal. The fact they were making them so cheaply meant that people could acquire them fairly. What we didn’t ask was whether they were going over the border into Afghanistan—that was a bit too political to try and question at the time. We didn’t really want to enrage our host.
Coward. But you got the feeling that that's what was happening?
I wasn’t sure. There was a slight hesitance to ask too many probing questions in case we came across as anyone other than tourists.
Did you ever feel like they were going to switch on you? Were there any hairy moments?
After we left the actual factory, we went back to the warlord’s room and it started getting a bit weird. Mostly because he pulled out a shitload of cocaine and heroin and started doing both in front of us. Apparently he made the stuff himself.
Did he offer you any?
Oh yes, he was very hospitable. We didn’t do any of the harder stuff, though. He offered us some black Moroccan hash as well. He didn’t go crazy on us, but it was definitely more than any of us had ever done. It was kind of disconcerting how far into this dragon’s lair we were, actually.
What were you talking about at this point?
Life in the village, I think, although my memory of the conversation isn’t great on account of the drugs. He told us how to clean an AK47, which was pretty entertaining.
So he has this weapons factory and next door he’s making coke and heroin, or storing it at least?
Yeah, poppies, bagged next door. He said it was his own stash, but then again he could have been talking complete rubbish. I would very much doubt it, though.
Did he talk to you about selling heroin?
No. It was more, “This is what we make, would you like some?” It was more showing off, with a lot of the focus put on his absolutely insane pirate parrot, which was jumping around from shoulder to shoulder. It was kind of tiny with half of its feathers fallen off and looked a bit like a zombie parrot. It looked fairly offensive and I think it was swearing at us, it was a pretty funny animal.
What sort of guy was this warlord? What was his disposition?
Fat and lazy.
He must have been on his game though, right?
I guess, but he just seemed very relaxed, very fat, and not particularly polite. He was more into showing off than being courteous. He seemed to get anything he wanted very, very quickly when he asked for it. But everyone there treated us well. People confuse the type of attention you can get in remote areas with animosity and belligerence, but it’s just that lots of people haven’t seen a tourist for ages, so sometimes you get stared at and followed around a bit. We got some animosity directed at us around the Khyber pass on the border, but everyone in the arms factory was great.
The view from the Khyber pass on the Pakistani border to Afghanistan.
The home of hospitality.
Absolutely. You let them into your house, you make them tea and you let them fire your AK47. It’s what any good host should do.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
More true stories that seem impossible: