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Afghan Gun Culture Costs Lives

Accidental deaths from firearms are common, but Afghans are reluctant to give up their prized guns.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

"I didn't mean to kill him, but the gun went off by mistake."


That was Gul Halim's explanation for the death of his friend last week. Halim said wanted to tease Sharif, so as a joke, he pointed his Kalashnikov at him. The gun went off, and Sharif, 27, was killed instantly.


Halim, 35, is now in prison in Samangan province. Sharif's family filed charges, and Halim is awaiting trial for the killing.


Afghans have a long tradition of gun ownership, and a wide range of firearms - from pistols and shotguns to fully automatic weapons - are readily available. But as more lives are claimed through accidents and misuse, some are asking whether it’s time for the government to collect - or at least regulate - privately-held firearms.


The issue is complicated by the lack of basic security in many parts of the country.


During Afghanistan's two decades of civil war, many people took their personal safety into their own hands. Militia groups, powerful local leaders and well armed criminals preyed on the population, and ordinary people bought arms to protect themselves and their families.


Abdulhai, 42, a resident of Chamtal district, Balkh province, said he bought a Kalashnikov assault rifle 15 years ago to protect his family from armed thieves.


But Abdulhai didn't know how to operate the weapon, although it is fairly ubiquitous in Afghanistan. Just three months after he purchased the gun, he shot and killed his 12-year-old son by mistake. Five years ago, he accidentally injured himself.


And about two weeks ago, while Abdulhai's wife was oiling the rifle, it accidentally discharged on automatic. Fifteen rounds went off, and three struck her 20-year-old daughter, who was sitting nearby. The young woman was severely wounded.


Abdulhai's wife said she didn't know how to operate the rifle, but her husband used to tell her to polish the gun anyway.


"I couldn't believe the gun went off," she said. "But as soon as I realised it, I noticed my daughter was bleeding and screaming because of the shots."


Sitting next to his daughter in her hospital bed, Abdulhai vowed to give up his gun.


"As long as I live, I’ll never touch a weapon again," he said.


Dozens of people from the northern provinces of Balkh, Jowzjan and Samangan spoke of similar incidents in interviews with an IWPR correspondent.


Abdul Satar, the head of a village of Sholgara district in western Balkh province, described how six members of a neighbouring family were killed when a hand grenade went off, "Khairuddin's 15-year-old son wanted to practice holding a hand grenade, but he accidentally pulled the pin. Two other grenades next to them also exploded, killing six members of their family on the spot.”


Abdul Satar said several people in his district lose their lives each year by handling weapons too casually. His own nephew was a victim of such an accident last year.


While Afghans are required to obtain police permission to buy a weapon, the statute is rarely enforced.


And while the United Nations-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration, DDR, programme currently under way seeks to disarm local militias, there is no similar effort to get guns out of the hands of civilians. So far, 40 per cent of the small arms and heavy weapons targeted for collection by the programme have been gathered.


General Khalilullah Ziayee, chief of security for Balkh province, told IWPR that privately held weapons "are not included in our programme".


Some civilians interviewed by IWPR said that if the militias were completely disarmed, they would not need to keep weapons at home to defend themselves and would gladly surrender them.


Hafizullah said he keeps two Kalashnikovs to protect his family, and says he doesn't trust the militias, "All these militia forces are thieves, and we have to be armed because we are afraid of them.


"When the arms are collected from the militia commanders and their supporters, I will be the first to turn my weapons in to the government."


Until DDR is finished, collecting arms from civilians promises to be difficult, observers say. Ziayee said the authorities know people keep arms in their homes, but it is difficult to enforce gun control.


"When the process of DDR is complete, and it becomes clear that all the militia members have been disarmed, the collection of arms from private homes could be done easily," he said.


Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.


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