NOWSHERA, Pakistan As Pakistan erupted in ecstasy over a breathtaking cricket win against India this summer, five-year-old Noeen lay dying in the country’s northwest, the tiny victim of an often deadly tradition: celebratory gunfire.
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Unloading a few rounds into the air is a well-established custom to celebrate weddings, religious ceremonies and sporting victories in turbulent Pakistan, where firearms stuff black markets along the Afghan border and gun crime is rife in its major cities.
Following Pakistan’s trouncing of arch-rival India during the Champions Trophy in June at least two people were killed and hundreds wounded in the ensuing celebrations as cricket fans fired gunshots into the air nationwide.
In Nowshera, in rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province near the country’s tribal belt, Laeeq Shah was with his son as the festivities kicked off in the park when a stray bullet struck the five-year-old in the head.
The toddler was rushed to a nearby hospital in Peshawar where he battled for close to 60 hours in a coma before succumbing to his wounds.
“One can ruin the house of another unknowingly,” says Shah.
In the tribal northwest Pakistan’s obsession with guns is particularly visible, with firearms cheaper than smartphones and most men travelling armed. Weapons are so ubiquitous they are almost seen as jewellery.
Pakistan’s deeply rooted gun culture was exacerbated further in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the US and Saudi Arabia began funneling weapons to Mujahideen fighters battling communist forces across the border.
The deluge of arms into the region gave rise to what was later labelled “Kalashnikov culture”, with automatic weapons readily available in gun bazaars across the country fuelling militancy in Pakistan long after the Soviet war ended.
Kalashnikovs and military-grade weapons soon replaced the bolt-action and flintlock rifles of old at social functions, with revelers spraying bursts of automatic fire into the air to celebrate weddings and sporting victories.
But the time-honoured tradition has come at a fatal price.
While there’s no official number for the deaths caused by stray bullets, authorities say hundreds have likely been killed over the years.
After his son’s death Shah decided to act. In the deeply religious area, he canvassed mosques and called on religious leaders to instruct their communities at Friday prayers to abandon the tradition.
“In the past, people use to celebrate with aerial firing because we had open fields,” explains Shah.
“Now every bullet fired in the air will hit someone and no one is certain it will land in an open place.”
Local authorities have also taken up the mantle, with police in Nowshera and other districts distributing pamphlets and posters along with pushing community engagement initiatives to combat the scourge.
“We cannot control this curse without public support,” Sajjad Khan, a senior police official, told AFP.
Peshawar police chief Tahir Khan called on would-be revelers to consider donating the money they would spend on ammunition to charity rather than firing volleys into the sky.
“It cost 60 to 70 rupees ($0.67) for one round, we can spend this money on the poor,” said Khan.
In Pakistan a license is required to possess a gun, while special permits are needed to carry large calibre weapons and automatic rifles.
But the status quo could yet change, with newly elected Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi vowing to crack down on the possession of automatic weapons as he was sworn in last month
As is stands, people caught firing guns into the air are fined up to 1,000 rupees for the offence, according to the mayor of Peshawar’s Nothia Qadeem neighbourhood Safdar Khan Baghi – but the rule remains loosely enforced
In an effort to combat the spread of the country’s gun culture, provincial authorities across Pakistan have passed a raft of measures over the years banning the sale of toys resembling weapons to children.
However a recent visit to Peshawar found the city’s largest bazaar full of toy replicas resembling pistols and Kalashnikovs.
“The government has banned the selling of toy guns, they say it distorts the minds of kids, so better to give them pens or any other toys,” said shopkeeper Sharif Khan.
“But the kids have no other alternative, nothing else is available to play with.”
In the Shah household, the damage has been done.
Following their son’s death, Shah said the family removed all of Noeen’s belongings – shoes, school bags and clothes – from their home.
It was just too painful to be reminded of the loss.
Shah says his wife still suffers from post-traumatic stress, while his daughter struggles to understand why guns are necessary for celebrations.
“Why do people celebrate with aerial firing?” asks Noeen’s sister Warisha.
“If you are happy then just say thanks to Allah.”