Times Zones

Time Zones: Dire Economic Times for Merchants at a Rogue's Bazaar in Pakistan

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 13, 2009

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Not that they really have the right to complain, but these are also dire economic times for smugglers and gun runners.

Show up any afternoon at the Sitara Market on the western outskirts of this violent city and you can ask them yourself. This is a rogue's bazaar, within 35 miles of the Afghanistan border. The locals call it the "American market," and for good reason: A baffling array of battlefield detritus, from U.S. military camouflage kneepads to night-vision goggles, Oakley sunglasses to Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate muffin cake, can be procured here for a bargain price.

At 5 p.m. on this Tuesday, the first thing made clear is that it's not advisable to actually be an American at the American market.

"Do not say you are from the U.S.A.," is the kind advice offered by Baz Mohammed, a vendor with nearly a decade of experience hawking smuggled goods to anyone willing to pay. Taliban fighters sometimes peruse these stalls. "We are scared of them. They tell us, 'Don't sell American things. They are our enemy.' That's why we can't write on our shop, 'U.S.A. goods.' They come at any time and check what we're doing."

Mohammed, an Afridi tribesman from the Khyber district along the border, sits on a crumpled American flag cushioning his dusty swivel chair, behind a cracked-glass case from which he removes a U.S. Army Velcro name tag -- of some poor "Davis" -- and a large "Made in the U.S.A." socket wrench that he claims is from a Black Hawk helicopter tool kit. He also sells gun holsters, gas masks, Sound Guard two-color disposable foam earplugs, Black & Decker power drills, extension cords, bolt cutters, welding glasses, corkscrews and a stand-up telescope. He does not feel like showing off the American firearms, but he insists they are not far away.

All this clutter might suggest a thriving trade, but Mohammed insists it's the opposite.

"Business is zero these days," he said, sipping green tea out of a porcelain dish. Earlier in the war, he could make more than $1,200 a day. Now he is happy with $60. "It's now much more difficult to bring something in the old illegal ways."

The vendors at Sitara Market do not like to spell out in detail their illegal ways, or explain how they acquire their loot. Some goods, they say, trickle over the border from what Taliban fighters scavenge off the battlefield, or from theft along the military supply route through the Khyber Pass. There are black-market deals in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and donations flipped for profit.

"Sometimes we go to Afghanistan, we buy a container, we don't know what is inside, some mixed things," Mohammed said vaguely. His story of the provenance of one U.S. military weapon he sold seemed unlikely even to him. "Someone told me the soldier dropped his pistol and it was picked up by someone on a road."

Much of the stuff for sale here seems merely odd, but some is worrisome. For $650, a correspondent for the GlobalPost Web site earlier this year was able to buy a U.S. military laptop that appeared to belong to someone from the U.S. Army's 864th Engineer Combat Battalion and held e-mail addresses for hundreds of military personnel. There are ancient and modern guns and full sets of camouflage fatigues.

Business has fallen off for many reasons, the vendors say, from the devaluation of the rupee to stricter border security making shipment more difficult. Bombs frequently explode along their routes. Rising violence in Peshawar and other parts of northwestern Pakistan have frightened away customers.

"People used to come from across the country to get the things that are made in America. People like American products," Mohammed said. "No fakes. Good quality. Long-lasting. Doctors, fighters, engineers, they'd come here, and if they like it, they buy it. Everyone would come."

In another stall, Fazli Allah, who is from near Tora Bora in Afghanistan, specializes in food. Nutri-Grain bars. Imperial's Finest sliced yellow cling peaches in light syrup. Libby's peas and carrots. "That's American," he said, pointing at his shelves. "American. American. American."

"It was very good business five or six years back, but now with the situation inside Pakistan, with the terror attacks, that has made the business really suffer," he said. "People don't want to come here."

Maybe it's worse now, but trouble feels timeless around here. Just down the road are the crumbling mud hut ruins of the Afghan refugee camps from the time of the Soviet invasion three decades ago. That baking plain is now adjoined by fresh rows of U.N. tents for some of the millions who have fled the Pakistani military's recent battles against the Taliban.

The late-afternoon sun slanted through the market, and this was not the best place to linger. By 6 p.m., it was time to cut to the chase. So where are those American weapons?

"Not now," Mohammed said. "Come back tomorrow."

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