A breath of fresh air?

Shops in Jamrud Bazaar in Khyber district have been warned to stop selling drugs, and police are conducting raids; but how soon will they solve a drug problem which has existed for eons?

Jamrud Bazaar. — Photos by the author

The bordering regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan have significant importance in local and international history and politics. For centuries people of the same tribes have lived here. The border was drawn in 1893. They share the same culture, language and way of life; many even have properties on the other side of what some of them the ‘unnatural’ line. There are many routes for people living near the Durand Line to cross over; and for eons, the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been a gateway to markets for Central and South Asian Merchants. In recent decades these trade routes fell victim to a war economy and were used as launching pads during the Soviet-Afghan war by the then famous ‘holy warriors’, backed by the international powers who founded the ‘jihadist narrative’. After recent waves of militancy, the border has been fenced completely and the ‘natural’ paths blocked for security reasons. In the 1980s, weapons and drugs became the main sources of earnings for locals and small warlords. Before 25th Constitutional Amendment, the districts were governed under Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCRs) for over a century. There was hardly any protection of human and constitutional rights in the colonial regulations.

Since the FCR was made in a particular manner only to safeguard the interest of the Queen and used against local freedom fighters, there was no provision against the selling and consumption of drugs in the law. Growing hashish and opium was routine during the so-called Azad Qabail period. The supply chain included dozens of people; ranging from growers to factory owners (making marketable hashish and opium items) and various kinds of middle-men.

Jamrud Tehsil of Khyber district is the closest to the main cities and the border touches provincial capital Peshawar. A wooden pole would segregate FCR land and constitutionally governed Pakistan. On the western side of the pole everyone was allowed to check their new weapons before buying or smoke hashish among other drugs in Jamrud bazaar.

The route towards Afghan border from Karkhano Market was as jarring as a movie scene: weapons, ammunition, hashish, opium, ice, alcohol were routine businesses and there was no embarrassment about it. Dozens of such shops could be seen on both sides of the road to Landi Kotal, the last western town. Everything was ‘pure’ and authentic, shops would boast their collections with signs saying “Aala Quality Chars Dastiab hai” (Good quality hash available). Shop No. 1 was famous for quality drugs and people would cross the wooded pole to procure drugs. In those days, Khyber district’s picturesque Tirah valley was popular for hashish crops. Besides Tirah, drugs would pour in from Afghanistan.

Ibrahim Khan sells sports items in the main Jamrud bazaar today. Five decades ago, his elders had started a local garments business. But for the time in between, he also sold drugs.

“From cloth to drugs and now sports items, we are changing our priorities as per demands every few decades”, he grins.

Ibrahim Khan’s elder brother has switched from garments to drugs and they started earning handsome money. Sale of drugs, particularly hashish, was allowed during the time of Khyber district’s notorious militants.

In Jamrud tehsil, there were more than four dozen drug shops and in Bara tehsil hashish would be baked in roadside shops. Since the majority of militants had been recruits from the local youth, they didn’t ban drugs; in fact, they were aware of how the local economy is attached to drugs. According to a 2013 official report of the United National Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) and Pakistan’s Ministry of Narcotic Control, 6.7 million people in Pakistan took drugs at some point in their lives, while 4.4 million were addicted and needed immediate attention. 22 percent of the addicts were women with the highest prevalence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The region has run under the traditional codes of life rather than modern law. Journalist Qayyum Afridi laments the centuries old custom of taking pride in being azad qabail saying this has kept them underprivileged.

After the merger, the police have replaced Khasadar force and they have started conducting raids to places where drugs are sold or kept. Anti-Narcotics Force and police share press releases announcing seizure of hashish, opium, ice and other drugs. They should also present the seized drugs to the media cameras. Despite the claims by the authorities, the drug problem is still a challenge.

Rafi Raza, the president of Jamrud Bazaar traders’ association, says that earlier the whole tribal belt was under a few Grade-17 officers who were asked to keep the status quo intact. After the extension of provincial and federal laws drug dealers have been told to use their shops to sell only lawful merchandise.

Afridi says the government should fulfill the promises made with tribal districts. “Don’t plunge tribal areas back into the Stone Age. If the authorities are serious about mainstreaming and uplifting the strategically important region, they should take them out of the darkness,” he says.

The writer is a Peshawar-based  journalist. He tweets @theraufkhan

A breath of fresh air?