Pakistan: an explosion of violence in the long struggle for control of a polarised commercial capital offers a warning on prospects for the stability of a strategically important nation
The hitman did not bother to knock. He announced his arrival by firing a volley of shots through Salima Khan’s front door. Bullets ricocheted as she cowered in the kitchen. One of the rounds struck Zainab, her bright-eyed five-year-old, in the arm. A Molotov cocktail shattered and their tiny home began to burn. The family’s crime: belonging to the “wrong” ethnicity. “They want to kill all the Pashtun,” says Mrs Khan, wiping away tears with her headscarf as she cradles her daughter. “I pray to God there will be peace in Karachi.” The charred body of a rickshaw driver from their Orangi Town neighbourhood was dumped in the street a day after the attack – a grisly portent that the gunmen will return.
The killings are the bloody dividends of a long-running struggle between rival political parties with roots in the ethnic Pashtun and Mohajir communities.
This summer, the violence has hit new heights. Shootings and grenade attacks in labyrinthine slums and hillside shanty towns claimed more than 300 lives in July, one of the worst monthly tolls on record.
The deaths took the total killed in Karachi this year to more than 800, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-governmental organisation.
New murders occur daily. Asif Ali Zardari, the unpopular president, has proved powerless to pacify the country’s biggest city – the heart of its $160bn economy, the seat of its stock exchange and the home of an important Arabian Sea port.
US and European concerns centre on Pakistan’s murky role in Afghanistan, its army’s ambiguous relationship with Islamist militants and the security of its nuclear arsenal. The risks posed by this volatile mix were highlighted in May when US Navy Seals assassinated Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda founder, who was hiding less than a mile from Pakistan’s military academy. Karachi’s politically instigated killings may seem parochial by comparison but they are a symptom of deeper conflicts that may ultimately play a greater role in shaping Pakistan’s destiny.
Like no other city, Karachi distils the mix of gun politics, ethnic tensions, sectarian strife, state weakness, militancy and organised crime that makes the whole country so fragile.
“We are not evolving into nationhood. We’re breaking up into ethnic groupings,” says Amber Alibhai, secretary-general of Shehri, a pressure group that campaigns against rampant land-grabbing in the city. “The social contract between the citizens among themselves and between the state has been destroyed.”
Karachi was born on an unprepossessing mudflat in the Indus river civilisation then known as Sindh. Over the centuries, swirling currents of migration have washed in ancestors of virtually every Pakistani community. But it is the explosive demography of the past 50 years that has created today’s pressure cooker. Karachi’s population, 450,000 people at independence in 1947, is now estimated at as many as 18m.
Although it has long bubbled with ethnic and sectarian tension, it has a reputation as one of the country’s more liberal, secular cities. Karachi has, however, suffered its share of militant attacks – including a spectacular raid on a naval base launched in retaliation for bin Laden’s death.
Fluttering banners in red, white and green belong to the incumbent – the Muttahida Quami Movement, the city’s dominant political force.
The MQM draws the core of its support from the Mohajir, descendants of Urdu-speaking migrants who flooded in from India during Pakistan’s birth pangs and formed the nucleus of an aspiring middle class. The party’s strength is reflected in the Sindh provincial assembly, where it occupies 28 of Karachi’s 33 seats.
Complicating the picture further, Mr Zardari’s ruling Pakistan Peoples party has its roots in Sindh. To shore up his majority in Islamabad, the president is constantly embroiled with his Karachi rivals in revolving-door coalition politics.
The latest wave of killings erupted last month after the MQM quit Mr Zardari’s coalition.
We need the nod from the government to start looking for the people who are behind the targeted killings
Violence has tended to spike in the city when the party is in opposition in the capital, which underscores its relevance on the national stage. As always, each party accused the other of igniting the tinderbox.
But critics believe the party is inextricably linked with the violence. Murders of activists from all sides began to increase sharply in May 2007 and rose rapidly after 2008 national elections, when the ANP won its first two city seats. Many believe the MQM is determined to prevent the upstart gaining a foothold.
Bullet holes puncturing shop shutters in the ANP-dominated Qasbar district in Orangi Town bear witness to recent killings. Mohammed Ali, a burly, thickly bearded property dealer, is scared to enter an MQM stronghold a few minutes’ walk away. “They’d take a shotgun and – bang, bang – they’d kill us because we are Pashtun,” he says.
Similar fears haunt the Mohajir. Malik Mohammed Jamil, a car-parts dealer, says he lost five relatives when gunmen stormed the market housing their shop last year – an attack blamed on Baluch militants. Dozens of traders have since applied for gun licences. “This kind of thing has made us feel as if we’re not citizens of Pakistan,” he says. “The country has been carved up between Punjabis, Sindhis and Pashtuns.”
Those who speak out risk being silenced. Nisar Baloch, who led a campaign to stop a cartel of illegal land-grabbers encroaching on a park, was shot in 2008 while going to buy a newspaper to read an account of a press conference he had given. At his modest home, where his brooding face stares from a larger-than-life portrait, Bahar Nooruddin, his sister, condemns Pakistan’s politicians. “They know everything that’s going on but they don’t want to act.”
The government response to the current outbreak has a repetitive feel. As usual, Islamabad has ordered paramilitary rangers to sweep neighbourhoods in search of perpetrators. Talks have been held with city politicians. Rewards have been offered for mobile phone pictures of suspects. But most believe it is only a matter of time before the next bout of killing.
They chop the bodies into pieces and put them in sacks and throw them in the street
manages the casualty ward at a Karachi hospital
There is another side to Karachi. “Say goodbye to split ends in 14 days” promise banners advertising Pantene shampoo, appealing to a growing middle class. Well-heeled diners pay Rs300 ($3.50) to enter the eateries at the new Port Grand mall, developed on a forgotten patch of seafront. Bloodshed may shut shops for a day but the city never pauses for long.
Such resilience is the city’s greatest asset. The question is whether its wells of tolerance run as deep. A unified, thriving Karachi would be a beacon of hope for a more peaceful Pakistan. For now, the chasms dividing the city, and the country, grow a little deeper with each freshly dug grave.