Darra, or Darra Adam Khel to call it by its official name, is a one-street town 40km south of Peshawar in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Tribal Areas. Because of security issues, tourists aren’t officially allowed to visit Darra anymore but back in 1992, when I first went to Pakistan, you were permitted to go there as long as you obtained a permit from the Home Office in Peshawar and were accompanied by a bodyguard for which you paid.
You might be wondering why I wanted to visit a pokey little town in one of Pakistan’s more unruly areas (*). The reason was simple – to fire guns! Darra’s main street is lined with gun workshops, one after the other. Using only primitive hand tools, the gunsmiths at Darra can make copies of any piece of hardware imaginable. Be it large anti-aircraft weapons, hand-grenades, automatic and semi-automatic rifles, machine guns, you name it, they can manufacture it. They even make James Bond-style pen guns.
(*) Even back in 1992, along with the southern province of Sindh, the North-West Frontier was considered to be unsafe to visit.
Mark shooting a Kalashnikov rifle
And what happens to the guns? They are mostly sold or traded (*) with big burly, never-smiling Afghans, of which you see plenty in Darra. Guns are constantly being tested (fired) and there is a tense atmosphere in the air. All things considered, I was probably pretty stupid to even consider a visit but I was only twenty-four years old at the time and had heard about this ‘magical’ place where you could fire any type of gun imaginable and I wanted to go see it for myself.
(*) The main source of trade for the Afghans was opium.
So, I got my permit and a small group of us headed off to Darra on the bus accompanied by our aged bodyguard who carried the most antiquated rifle I had ever seen. It looked like a musket and I thought to myself at the time what a great help he would be if we did get in any bother.
Once in Darra, finding something to fire was easy. We were offered an array of weapons and the price for each one accordingly. My travelling budget at the time (US$50 per week) restrained me from having a go on either an anti-aircraft gun (*) or the classic Bren gun which was set up, machine gun style, on the roof of one of the workshops. Instead, I settled for one cartridge of bullets for a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle at US$5 per cartridge. I started firing slowly, one bullet at a time, but soon decided this was boring and so let the whole cartridge go in one quick 10-second burst. This was more like it and I promptly handed over US$5 for another cartridge. After spraying the bullets for all of another 10 seconds, I reluctantly decided that was my lot. We travelled back to Peshawar without incident and the only other thing worthy of note happened when I woke up the following morning. I went to get out of bed and my left shoulder was in complete agony. I didn’t know what kickback/recoil was at the time and certainly didn’t know you got it from firing a gun. It was a few days before the pain subsided and my shoulder got back to normal.
(*) The anti-aircraft gun would have set me back US$50 (my whole weekly budget) for one shot. I contemplated it and whilst doing so, the Pakistani guy I was negotiating with told me that if I did decide to fire one, he would appreciate it if I would aim the gun in the direction in which he was pointing as in the other direction there was a kindergarten school that might have been in range!