Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Celebrations Misfire in Southeast Afghan Province

With modern firearms, tradition of shooting into the air leads to casualties and lasting feuds.
By Ahmad Shah
  • A jirga - the village council convened to resolve disputes and fix compensation for crimes. Khost province, 2012. (Photo: Farid Zaher)
    A jirga - the village council convened to resolve disputes and fix compensation for crimes. Khost province, 2012. (Photo: Farid Zaher)

Sainullah, 22, wept as he described the death of his father a month ago at a wedding in the Khost province of southeastern Afghanistan.

As music played and festivities were in full swing in his village in the Mandozai district, one of the guests aimed his Kalashnikov at the sky and started firing, holding the rifle with one hand.

As the bullets sprayed, the man lost control of the weapon and Sainullah’s father was shot dead, along with another guest. A third man was wounded and taken to hospital, where he remains.

The celebrations turned into mourning, and then feud.

Sainullah refused to take part in a customary arbitration process, in which local elders would have negotiated a cash settlement with the killer in order to end the dispute.

“I will not agree to any mediation,” Sainullah said angrily. “I have decided to seek revenge for my father.”

Celebratory gunfire is widespread across Afghanistan, particularly in Pashtun areas. It is commonplace at weddings, engagement parties, religious festivals, and other occasions such as when pilgrims return from Mecca or the birth of a son.

At sporting events including cricket matches, fans fire into the air when their team, and the winners of court cases do it to taunt the loser.

Medical professionals say they see a lot of patients who have been injured in shooting accidents during celebrations.

Abdul Majid Mangal, head of the public hospital in Khost city, said his staff treated 13 men, women and children injured in this way last year. One of them died and the rest recovered.

“Three people injured in celebratory gunfire were brought to us a month ago as well, but all three died on the way here,” he added.

Padshah Zar Abdullah, director of the Motun Baba Hospital in Khost, said four people were treated for such injuries there last year, one of whom died.

Mirza Jan, who works at another clinic in Khost, said two out of the three people it last year for such gunshot wounds had died. He said the casualty figure was probably higher outside the towns, as “it isn’t clear how many of them get taken to the district clinics”.

As well as immediate death and injury, accidental shootings can lead to prolonged blood feuds.

To avert revenge attacks, community leaders step in to mediate an agreement under Pashtun customary law in which the accidental assailant pays over a sum of money to the aggrieved family. Once agreed, the commitment to peace is binding on both sides.

Hajji Nawaz, a tribal elder in the Tanay district, explained that in the event of an accidental shooting, a delegation of elders from the village and the wider tribe would go to the victim's family and apologise on behalf of the perpetrator. A council or “jirga” of community leaders would then instruct the perpetrator to pay a sum of money to the victim’s family.

“If either party does not accept the jirga or the decision the elders have reached, they will be accused of disrespecting the tribal elders, and expelled from the tribe and the village,” he said. “People will no longer visit them in times of happiness or sorrow.”

Hajji Janbaz, a resident of the Mangaso area, told IWPR how a settlement was negotiated after his son was killed by a stray bullet fired during a wedding in a neighbouring village a year ago.

“I was building a room in the yard with my son Sher Khan when he suddenly dropped to the ground. When I approached him, his head was bleeding. A bullet falling from the sky hit my son in the head and killed him,” Janbaz said.

The wedding’s host was told of the death, and he came to apologise the following day, escorted by village representatives and tribal elders. Despite their grief, Janbaz and his family accepted a settlement.

Some jirgas in Khost have gone further and issued a comprehensive ban on celebratory gunfire, under the traditional laws known as “nerkh”. (See Afghan District Makes Own Peace on another use of such broad agreements.)

Hajji Nayeb, a resident of Habashkhel in the Motun area of central Khost, said an agreement of this kind was reached last covering some 1,500 households. Anyone found to have fired off shots casually would be disarmed and fined the equivalent of 200 US dollars and two cows.

The ban was respected for a while, but Nayeb said people had begun firing their guns again as traditional law no longer carried the binding force it once did.

“Tribal structures and decisions have become weaker,” he said.

Afghan president Hamed Karzai has repeatedly condemned the practice in his regular radio and television addresses to the nation. In one speech, he pointed out that aside from the casualties, “it has a negative impact on children, patients, the elderly, and pregnant women, because our fellow-citizens are sensitive to the sound of gunfire due to prolonged war”.

One of the obstacles to clamping down on carefree shooting is the fact that government security forces are keen on it themselves.

“Sometimes, the security forces do more celebratory firing than the general public,” Khost resident Sabawun said. “Many people have been injured by the gunfire."

Nader, another Khost resident, related how at the wedding of the brother of a high-ranking policeman in their village, officers fired into the air for a full 30 minutes.

“We were all hiding inside our rooms,” he said. “It was as if the Taleban had attacked the wedding. We later found out it was the police firing into the air.”

Apart from the waste of government-issue ammunition bullets, Nader said, “When those who are supposed to uphold the law break it, how can you complain about the actions of others?”

Khost police chief Faizullah Ghairat denied that his men indulged in the practice, saying, “The police arrest people for celebratory gunfire, so how can they do it themselves?”

Ghairat said his forces were active in curbing the practice, and had arrested hundreds of people and seized their weapons. Before taking action, however, they offered people a second chance.

“Individuals make a commitment not to act in this way again, and if they don’t keep their promises, strict legal action is taken against them,” he said,

In some cases, there is no chance of redress or punishment, when victims have no idea where a stray bullet came from.

“I was working on my farm one day when I suddenly felt a blow on my right knee. It was very painful. I could not feel my leg,” said Padshah Mir, who now walks with difficulty. “When they brought me to hospital, doctors said I had been hit by a bullet. I don’t know where that bullet came from, but I am disabled now.”

Ahmad Shah is an IWPR reporter in Khost province in southeast Afghanistan.