Dining with Arms Dealers in Northern Pakistan

Monday, 24 August, 2015.  2230.

Well that would have to be one of the most fascinating evenings that I’ve had for a long time. The plan was that I would go and have dinner with my Italian friends Paolo and Daniella before they depart early tomorrow morning. As I was waiting for the two of them to meet me outside their room I got talking to two very traditional looking men who were obviously from another part of the country. One was from Peshawar and the other was from Abbotobad. The heart of Taliban country.

I asked one of them whether Peshawar was safe as I’d been hearing conflicting stories. More recently I’d heard that the Pakistan Army had been pushing the Taliban back into Afghanistan and that things there were much better now. “Sure” he said. "If you ever visit Peshawar come and see me" he said as he gave me his business card. The business card said “XXX Armoury” and I looked back at him and was about to ask the question and then he nodded without saying anything. He was an arms dealer. Later I learned that he also manufactured munitions and arms for sale to Governments around the world and for on-sale between Governments.

Off to dinner we all headed. Now we were six rather than three. He had his friend from Abbotabad, Mohammed, and then that man’s son who was aged 28. Wonderful people. Later I learned that Mohammed was also involved in the arms trade. They suggested that we dine at a traditional Hunza restaurant which I was not aware of and the food was out of this world.

The more we talked the more interesting the discussion became. Amir had been kidnapped by the Taliban a few years ago outside his home in Peshawar. He was held for about six months during which he was taken into Afghanistan and tortured and badly beaten as they demanded a ransom of US$30M. He was fed just enough food to keep him alive and then chained to his bed of an evening with another person sleeping in the same room so he couldn’t escape. Mohammed later said to me that he believed that Amir had been kidnapped by the Taliban because of his business in the arms trade.

I asked Amir if I might ask him a difficult question and then asked him what he had learned from the experience: “That is an easy question” he told me. "If anything the situation we now find ourselves in here in Pakistan is our own fault because we have not interpreted our religion the way we should have. It is the most peaceful religion in the world.”

The dinner continued on. The local traditional Hunza food was amazing. They taught us that people in Pakistan learned to share the one spoon when sharing a meal because it exposed each other to one another’s germs, and, in so doing, enabled the immune system to build up. All of this being discussed in a quiet little garden area in a restaurant tucked in a place you would never otherwise find.

Building works were going on in the middle of the restaurant not metres from our chairs as a bloke dug down with a shovel at a depth of about ten feet. Only in the third world. Back home there would be cones and JHAs and helmets and whatever else just to ensure no-one got killed in case of an earthquake or tsunami.

Through the course of the evening Amir told us also that he now spent much of his time in Africa where he had an engineering business. “That’s a strange place to have an engineering business” I questioned, before pulling myself up and apologising for asking too many questions. He said the freight costs there are cheaper, but as he did so he looked at me and we both smiled quietly. I stopped asking any more questions. “My apologies” I said. I have a very inquisitive mind.

All along I couldn’t help reflect back on what I had read about arms trading in Sierra Leone during the blood diamonds conflict. It’s a murky world. Governments like to keep track of exactly what is being produced and where it’s going. And then some arms dealers are doing everything they can to avoid that tracking. Planes zig zagging across many different borders. False paperwork. All that sort of stuff. Not that Amir struck me as that type of person. I don’t think Daniela and Paolo knew that he was in this game during the evening and I ensured that I kept things discrete. But every so often Amir would look at me with a wry smile as we talked cryptically around the subject.

Next stop was another restaurant. The guys were keen to sample more local food. This time we ended up eating skewers of cooked yak meat at another restaurant higher up in the bazaar. There I asked his friend if he minded me asking him a difficult question. "Go ahead" he said.

“Do you believe Osama Bin Laden was living in Abbotobad for all those years undetected, or do you believe he was captured elsewhere by the US and transported there?”

I was interested in their response as both Amir and Mohammed both know a lot of people in high places. Mohammed told me that he knew the man who was General of the Pakistan army at the time - he’s now passed away - and he told him on three occasions that Bin Laden had actually died up at Toro Boro in Afghanistan by virtue of lack of access to dialysis. But the Americans had resuscitated him on each occasion and kept him alive to further other objectives.  Mohammed told me that he had visited the house in which Bin Laden was killed the day after the American strike - it was cordoned off by then - and said that was very large and completely different to all the other houses in the area. Not the sort of place that you would choose to live if you wanted to keep a low profile.