Smuggling a Gun Through the Kabul Airport

We sat wedged in between our luggage in a beaten Toyota Corolla of uncertain but advanced age. On the outside it looked similar to thousands other Corolla's slowly worming through the smoggy and congested Afghan capital that day. It felt as if Toyota got an exclusive contract to supply passenger cars to the country.

Pedestrians cutting their paths short through the fumes of incessantly honking vehicles, hawkers making use of the situation to peddle their wares through the rolled-down car windows, beggars claiming the loose change. The usual nerve-wrecking journey through Kabul.

In contrast with the chaos outside, the interior of the vehicle represented a bubble of serenity. It was lavishly decorated by all sorts of Islamic amulets, plastic flowers, and photos of Bollywood movie idols. A personal kingdom of our good-natured driver, neatly dressed in the typical male gown (perahan tunban), with a pakol crowning his head. The noise from outside was drowned out by Afghan music squealing from a desolate cassette recorder.

That was our very last trip by car in Afghanistan. Nezbud had completed her long mission for a humanitarian NGO — tackling poverty, improving child education, empowerment of women, and things like that. Afterwards she did a short stint at the UN during the recent Afghan general election. Then we spent a few weeks travelling the suspiciously quiet interior. Sad voids where the Buddha's stood in Bamiyan, the famous Blue Mosque among thousands of dove wings in Mazar-e Sharif, desert-like Balkh with abandoned rusty tanks and eye-watering archeological ruins, snowy Band-e Amir full of landmines. But that day we were unavoidably scheduled to leave, flying on the wings of PACTEC, out of this beautiful, proud, but ever so tormented country.

As we approached the airport, armed security checkpoints were becoming more and more frequent. Ranks, uniforms, and screenings changed in effort to avoid security breach through bribery. We knew all too well that passing the airport was going to require a lot of time and patience. After all, it was still the time of the mad "War On Terror" orchestrated by George W. Bush and his puppet masters. As we were to find out, the coming hours were to be even less boring than we had expected!


The day before leaving Afghanistan we ventured to the centre of Kabul to pick up some souvenirs and gifts for family and friends. Obviously we ended up on the famous Chicken Street. Despite its name, the street is not known for its sale of chickens — those are instead sold on the adjacent Flower Street. Chicken Street was full of little souvenir shops targeting khorigi (foreigners) like ourselves, selling clothes, jewellery, rugs, furniture, pottery, art, food, and more.

There were also several shops offering peculiar guns. Not any army issue, or certainly not of this age. The contrivances looked ancient, with funny thick metal barrels and a wooden body, stock lavishly decorated with mother of pearl inlay. They looked implausible and harmless, like props from a family movie set in the 19th century. Apparently just amusing toys to lure the tourists like us, a perfect oriental present to take back to the "west".

Of course we did not go shopping with the intention of buying any arms. But Chicken Street is like an IKEA store — after you get in you surprise yourself by leaving with stuff you never even knew existed. Although already laden with a few beautiful rugs and some pieces of clothing, somehow we became proud owners of two ancient-looking shooting irons — a rifle and a long pistol. I have no idea what we paid, but thanks to the charm of haggling we definitely had a pleasant feeling we got a very good price, of course!

Both of them were muzzle-loaded percussion ignition devices. The rifle had a different percussion cap than the pistol, and its muzzle widened out at the end comically like a trumpet. It bore some hard to decipher signs, possibly the number "5889". According to Internet research it could have been a musket called "Brown Bess". In the steely part of the smaller gun there was an egraving of something resembling a royal crown, year 1864, and the word "TOWER". Internet research convinced me it resembled a British Flintlock gun from the 19th century. Both guns looked like items from a century-old arms depot, but — judging from the affordable price as well as the numbers available — they were rather just pretty imitations made for the tourists.

Perhaps they were just toys, but still looking like guns, and possibly even able to fire (at least once!) The thought of possible problems getting them through the customs did occur to us, but the things looked so obviously souvenir-like that we did not really allow ourselves to worry.


So the next day — as my travel diary reminds me it was Monday 28. November 2005 — we squeezed all our possessions and the two of us in an old cab that Abas hailed for us from the street, and we left our compound for one last journey across Kabul before leaving the country. It was still long before sunrise, streets dark like black ink.

Driven by the cheerful owner of the contraption we snaked our way in the direction of the Kabul International Airport. We were sick from the constant accelleration and sudden stops, deafened by honking all around and tormented by the music from the beaten cassette recorder. At a certain point, still a good distance away from the actual airport building, we apparently must not continue further in a local car and had to step out. We paid the driver the negotiated sum using a mixture of our last afghans and US dollars, got out and, with a fortifying sigh started to shuffle our luggage through the maze of heavily guarded security perimeters, scanners, pat-downs and border controls. Local army, police, border security, NATO's ISAF, and who knows who else more, it was endless.

We had a lot of luggage, but we were most worried about getting our guns through the security checks. The musket in particular, since it was a trifle too long to fit in my backpack. The muzzle was stubbornly sticking out at the top, and I found no other solution than covering it with some clothes. We did not know whether we carried some ancient relics or props for the tourists, but in any case they resembled guns, and we were in a country plagued by a decades of wars.


Indeed we almost did not manage to get the guns to the airplane. At one of the security checks someone spotted the rifle in a scanner, so I had to pack it out. I don't think they found or cared about the shorter gun. The long musket sticking out of my backpack was their main target. The officials declared we could not export any items of historical significance. We argued that we saw hundreds of these heavily ornamented things on sale in the Chicken Street shops, so they could not be anything else than harmless imitations. Then they asked for an attest from an "Afghan museum" certifying that it was not a genuine historic item.

Ourselves, we were totally convinced we had bought just tourist souvenirs. Why, even the security guys themselves must have seen them in the many tourist shops in the Chicken Street! So we dared to argue with vehemence. Unfortunately, we were clearly making negligible impression on the big uniformed men with black full beards and small, unfriendly eyes. Nezbud was losing patience, which seemed contraproductive with this kind people, so it was me who went to negotiate to the airport police office.

Inside the small office, for a long time things looked hopeless. Little interest in listening to arguments, no sign of a shift in attitude, no glimpse of any goodwill. They came up with an idea to call our NGO to come and collect the gun, and send it to us, somehow, at a later date. I tried to explain that our mission in the country was completed, that we were not coming back, adding that the gun imitations are mere Christmas presents for the family (which was true).

The end of the drama was weird — the guy who first caused a stir decided to soften his stance, beckoned to a friend of his (despite all the present police superiors) and off we went back to the airport hall. We could take the rifle with us.

Imagine Kabul airport in the mids of War on Terror, overall agitation, security paranoia. What a grand and unreal feeling it was to walk briskly, with the ancient musket in one hand, past the various eyebrow-raising police officers and soldiers sporting huge automatic weapons!

Then, astonishingly, as I walked by some X-ray machine, suddenly there was another security guy in my face, wildly demanding an explanation, arguing there was no way I could travel with this thing, etc. In the commotion I unfortunately lost my "friendly" guy from sight, so for a few painful minutes I had to fend the new guy off, explaining everything all again about it being a present, a simple imitation from Chicken Street, and that the issue had just been cleared with the airport police some minutes ago, etc.

Luckily, the "friendly" guy found me back and soon, with Nezbud who meanwhile pretty much gave up any hope to keep the present, we finally passed the passport control and walked out to the airfield.


Formalities over, finally we climbed into the small PACTEC airplane on the tarmac. The two pilots put on their headphones, started chatting in US English, and it looked like we were about to leave. However, it soon appeared that some or other sensor on the plane was frozen. We saw a few technicians crawling our wings with electric fire blowers. The problem did not thaw, unfortunately, so we were disembarking again.

All together about an hour huddling with the other few passengers in a small booth not far from the plane, warmed with a fire stove.

Finally take-off. Superb visibility of the majestic Hindu Kush mountains underneath. Thanks to my handheld GPS I measured the speed — it was not much in excess of 600 km/h. It was an aircraft without pressurization, so we did not fly very high either, but I had no way to measure the altitude. Nezbud was very frightened, but she got seated next to some US woman with a baby, so she bravely kept her calm!


The saga with the musket was not over yet. Our following destination was Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Not the most benevolent country either. We started to fear uncomfortable about raising another silly arms-smuggling incident. Somehow we felt nothing can be more scary than the security in the war-torn Kabul airport, and that was obviously right, but the possible complications in Pakistan turned into real worries. We still could not be sure to bring the souvenirs all the way back home.

We did all we could do, and that was hoping for the best. And by a stroke of luck it worked.

We got to an X-ray scanner and put the luggage on the moving band. As at any security check, at the middle section of the machine there was a guy sitting in a chair, closely watching the innards of people's luggage on a monitor. With heavy hearts we watched my backpack containing the musket, with the protruding muzzle again masked by some clothes, entering the business part of the scanner. A second later it would come into view on the monitor. And at that time something incredible happened.

Perhaps due to the long hours staring at the screen, perhaps because of some passing thoughts, or simple fatigue — the security guy watching the monitor slowly closed his eyes. He was calm, looking as if he was meditating or praying, just at the crucial time when my bag must have passed on his screen. We eyed each other with Nezbud and could not believe our luck.

During the rest of the travels we packed both guns into large pieces of luggage, and we never had any trouble.


To this day we do not know what kind of guns did we buy there on the Chicken Street in Kabul. Specimens from an ancient stock somebody discovered and decided to turn into profit? Or just handsome models to lure the tourists? At the time I rather thought of them as tourist souvenirs, but over time I feel a growing conviction that they may, in fact, be real. The main reason being that they look pretty damn elaborate as well as aged — and who in war-torn Afghanistan would go into so much trouble for simple tourist wares?

Tomáš Fülöpp
Kabul, Afghanistan
November 28, 2005
Tomáš Fülöpp (2012)

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LanguageENGLISH Content typeARTICLELast updateOCTOBER 20, 2018 AT 01:46:40 UTC