PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — A wedding demands a special kind of background music here in the northwest of Pakistan. The Pathans who inhabit this harsh land serenade the bride with gunfire. The groom's kinsmen fire in the air "to show the bride's family they are strong," says journalist Masroor Hussain. "Brides' families are disappointed if there isn't a lot of shooting."

But there is new danger in an old custom. The war in neighboring Afghanistan has washed a flotsam of exotic weapons, including automatic rifles, over the border into Pakistan. At weddings, they're impressive. But sometimes they're lethal.

One shot severed a high-tension wire. Eight guests were electrocuted. A blood-splashed stone wall is a grim reminder of recent tragedy in Speen Kanrhi, a one-street village of stone huts and braying donkeys in the hills outside Peshawar. Mir Aslam, a young villager with a yoke and two water buckets slung over his shoulders, pauses to recall the scene.

By his account, a group of men started firing their guns as the bride was being brought to the mosque for the ceremony. At least one shot severed a high-tension wire overhead. The wire whipped into the crowd, touching off fires. Eight guests were electrocuted, Aslam says. Others were injured in the melee as people scrambled for safety.

Then there was Pakistan International Airlines' daily flight to Peshawar from Lahore.

Tracer bullets
The aircraft had begun its descent into Peshawar when the pilot spotted tracer bullets sailing up from a wedding not far from the end of the runway. The pilot requested permission to circle the field, according to a government spokesman. "They were flying around escaping the bullets, and in the process, it got dark," the spokesman says.

For reasons that have never been explained, the pilot turned over the controls to a pilot-trainee. "The new man saw a flat area and thought it was the runway," the spokesman says. "But he was landing on a road. He didn't realize it until he was just 400 feet off the ground. He couldn't pull up." The plane touched down, hit a ditch and flipped over. Thirteen were killed.

The plane touched down, hit a ditch and flipped over. Thirteen people were killed.

Rahim Gul, head and chest surgeon at Peshawar's Lady Reading Hospital, sees some of the casualties. On the average, he says, he treats two or three patients a week who have been injured by stray bullets. "You don't find this many bullet wounds anywhere else in the world," he says. "It's an undeclared war."

Gul recalls a wedding he attended several months ago in the village of Togh Serai. One young guest fired off a shot as he was relaxing in a chair. The automatic rifle kicked back, hitting the youth in the leg. As the surgeon watched in horror, the youth reflexively squeezed the trigger again, emptying the magazine.

No one was seriously hurt, Gul says, but it was a very close call. Five men had bullet holes in their turbans. "It was just like in the cowboy pictures," Gul says, "when the gun is fired and the bullet goes through a man's hat."

'Lost two of them'
Not all his stray-bullet patients came from weddings. Gul was on emergency call last Eid, the most joyous festival of the Muslim year. In a 48-hour period, Gul says, "we received 17 stray-bullet casualties in the hospital. We lost two of them and five others needed operations."

One can be had for a day by offering the owner the use of a water buffalo. Last year, Gul says, a stray bullet whistled through his own yard while his wife and children were sunning themselves. On another occasion, a colleague was driving when he felt a burning sensation in his chest. He scratched the spot, and his hand came away wet with blood. A stray bullet had pierced the roof of his car.

"I have been lobbying," Gul says. "I've talked to the provincial chief and he said he would try to prevent this."

Firing a gun into the air at a wedding has been banned by law for decades, since Pakistan was part of British India. But until recently, constables didn't bother to enforce the law.

For one thing, the rebellious Pathans generally ignored the law. Their older, unwritten code of honor calls for a show of arms as a sign of chivalry.

Besides, authorities thought the custom harmless. Years ago, the gunplay was little more than spraying the sky with a shotgun. If a few pellets showered down on the crowd, no one was apt to be badly hurt.

Things changed when war erupted in Afghanistan. Suddenly, powerful weapons were available — and cheap. Consider the going rate to rent a Kalashnikov, a Russian-made automatic rifle that is especially popular. One can have the gun for a day by offering the owner the use of a water buffalo.

Police estimate there are now more than a million automatic weapons in Peshawar. That is roughly one for every six males in the province, including the infants. And in the eyes of Mohammed Zamir Alam, senior police superintendent for Peshawar, "that is too many."

Two cultures
Zamir Alam is caught between two cultures as he tries to impose European notions of law and order on a people that successfully fought off every foreign invader since Alexander the Great. In an effort to curb the carnage, the police recently were authorized to make arrests at weddings. The new regulations call for the police to arrest the groom and hold him in custody until he discloses the offenders' identities. In his eagerness to return to his bride, the police figure, the groom will name names quickly.

But that tactic hasn't proved very successful, either. Even when they manage to nab the offenders, the police have trouble coaxing witnesses to testify against the men at trial.

Village leaders are little help. Often, they are the worst offenders.

Nearby, the councilman's 2-year-old son packs a baby bottle in one hand and a toy gun in the other.

"To be a great man in this part of the world, you've got to have enemies," says Mushtaq Ahman Qureshy, a local newspaper columnist. "You've got to be a Kalashnikov-wielding man."

Some 3,000 armed men showed up for a double wedding thrown several months ago by a politically prominent family in Taxila. "As a sign of jubilation, there was a great firing of Kalashnikovs," journalist Hussain recalls. "It went on for hours and hours. The guests would just load a magazine and fire it. The police didn't intervene."

Among the guests pounding away at the heavens that day was Imtaiz Khan. Tough, wealthy, respected and feared in Taxila, where he is a city councilman, Khan says he believes in law and order.

But "if I hadn't fired, the people would have said, 'Imtaiz Khan carries a gun and can't fire it,'" he says, brandishing a small automatic rifle. In Peshawar, there is hardly a greater insult. Nearby, his 2-year-old son packs a baby bottle in one hand and a toy gun in the other.

Ironically, even the province's leading gun-control lobbyist clings to the old ways. At home, in a room decorated with antique firearms, Gul struggles to explain why guns are a necessity to a Pathan. "Life isn't the sort of thing where, if someone threatens you, you can just turn the other cheek," he says.

Besides, he adds, he likes his firearms. "When I go out hunting," he says, "even if I don't hit a bird, if I fire just one shot, then I am happy."