The costs of war next door

     While many of Pakistan’s troubles are self-inflicted, the country has suffered from 30 years of war in neighboring Afghanistan.  This has included bombs from Afghan battlefields exploding in the scrapyards of Lahore…

Steel cutters in Misri Shah, Lahore

Basic safeguards such as work gloves are a luxury for Pakistani scrapyard laborers. These men hold oily rags they use to protect their hands when feeding steel scrap into a chopping machine.  Others are shod in sandals. (Photo by James Rupert)

Newsday, 11 May 2006

BY JAMES RUPERT — Staff Correspondent

LAHORE, Pakistan — Muhammad Mushtaque, an impoverished junkyard laborer, took a sledgehammer late last month to break up a heavy chunk of steel and brass. A friend, Muhammad Rafiq, held the oblong casing steady on the packed dirt of the yard, a neighbor said.
But the casing was a live mortar round. When Mushtaque’s hammer struck, it exploded, killing Rafiq and mortally wounding Mushtaque.
In the Lahore neighborhood of Misri Shah, a vast warren of junkyards and metal dealers, battlefield scrap from Afghanistan is part of the business, and three mortar rounds or bombs have exploded in the past year, killing seven scrapyard workers, residents said.

Misri Shah, which locals say is Pakistan’s largest scrap market, reflects much of life for millions. It’s a chaotic, unregulated, energetic community where long, hard, dirty labor provides comfortable lives for a few, but mere survival for most. And it is a reminder that no place in Pakistan is insulated from three decades of war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Trucks and donkey carts pack Misri Shah’s dirt alleys, bringing the engines, pipes, train parts, ship anchors and other varieties of industrial metal that this country has worn out. Men with hammers, cutting torches, grinders and presses attack the mounds of junk, sorting it into metal to be melted down or otherwise recycled into Pakistan’s economy.

Some of Misri Shah’s metal comes from Afghanistan’s war zone. Battlefield steel is eagerly sought, notably the Russian tanks and armored vehicles that litter Afghanistan 17 years after the Soviet army ended its occupation there. The machinery of war is built of high-grade steel hard enough to be profitably recycled as rock-crushing equipment and tools, scrapyard workers said.
Pakistan tries to control the import of war debris – and exclude bombs and ammunition – by permitting scrap imports only via Taftan, a customs post on the Iranian border, said Aslam Reza Butt, president of the Central Iron Merchants’ Association. Merchants often hide cheaply bought “bomb scrap” in shipments to increase weight and boost profits, he said.

“The government must properly check these trucks [at the border] and prevent bombs from coming to Lahore,” he said. Still, ordnance trickles in to Misri Shah, scrap yard owners and workers said.

“People just pay bribes and bring in what they want,” said Ikhlaq Ahmed, who runs one of the neighborhood’s hundreds of small scrap yards. Historically, Pakistan never has fully controlled its borders with Iran and Afghanistan, which span remote, rugged mountains and deserts peopled by staunchly independent Pashtun and Baluch tribes who cross the frontier largely at will.

The Central Iron Merchants’ Association has vowed to fine any dealer found to be dealing in bomb scrap, but that rule, too, is often ignored, Ahmed said. Bombs and shells are formally prohibited but can be bought cheaply, if discreetly. Once they are broken and unrecognizable, their steel and other metals can be sold for normal prices, yielding extra profit.

The initial police report on the explosion last month says a second, live bomb was found at the site, and accuses the scrapyard’s owners, Munir and Kassim Ittifaq, of illegally dealing in ordnance.

The owner of a nearby yard, Mohammed Bashir Kumboh, doubted their guilt, noting that the explosion happened on a Sunday, when they were absent and their yard was closed. Misri Shah’s poorly paid laborers often work Sundays on their own, buying and breaking small items for a few extra rupees, Kumboh said, suggesting that’s what Mushtaque was doing.

Dealing with danger

For Misri Shah’s workers, bombs from Afghanistan are a fairly exotic danger. Smaller explosions happen every week, Ahmed and others said, if a bullet, shock absorber or any other hydraulic cylinder slips unnoticed into a furnace or press.

More constant threats are the cutting torches, chopping machines and hot, jagged steel the workers handle all day to prepare the metal for melting or sorting. The scrapyard owners support a local dispensary that is visited by 50 to 60 men each day, a quarter of them with work-related burns or lacerations, a worker there said.

“We provide all safety measures for our workers,” said Kumboh, sitting on a rope bed a week ago in the hot, humid shade of his scrapyard’s only tree. Yards away, his workers did wear heavy boots, rather than the sandals often seen here. But they sliced steel using gas cutting torches with no protective goggles or gloves. Others unloaded heavy pipes from a truck, some using rags in an effort to protect their hands.

© Newsday 2006

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One response to “The costs of war next door

  1. This is the first ever I heard about the story that in Misri Shah, scrappers found bombs in junk/scrap. But its interesting to read some parts of this blog. Not only this region but in far east Asia weapons are present in heavy abundance because of war situations and because of wars everywhere in the region. But Afghan war has really damaged Pakistan. War is not the solution of anything but no one understands.

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