The killers of Karachi

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.

A slow-burning war for control of one of the great economic engines of south Asia has burst back into life with a ferocity not seen since the mid-1980s, when Pakistan’s army acted to quell clashes on Karachi’s streets.

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.

Rehman Malik, the interior minister, earned widespread ridicule when he played down the significance of the mayhem by suggesting 70 per cent of the murders were committed by angry girlfriends or wives. In fact, the violence is a warning light for long-term prospects for stability in a country whose fate may have grave security implications for the west.

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.

Street strife: police keep watch in an area of Karachi in June amid tensions between the two main political and ethnic  groupings. Those form the chief cause of friction in what is a relatively liberal and secular city. Source: Eyevine

Street strife: police keep watch in an area of Karachi in June amid tensions between the two main political and ethnic groupings. Those form the chief cause of friction in what is a relatively liberal and secular city. Source: Eyevine

It is these trends that will determine whether Pakistan’s hesitant journey from military rule to a semblance of democracy will deliver greater stability or deeper fragmentation.

“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.

The clearest narrative in the present tangle of troubles is a variant of the age-old struggle between incumbent and challenger. Battle lines in city politics are marked by flags strung from lamp posts and mobile phone masts, staking the contenders’ territory.

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.

Crimson flags flying across poorer neighbourhoods belong to the challenger – the Awami National party. The ANP draws the bulk of its support from a growing influx of Pashtun migrants from north-western regions bordering Afghanistan. Many work as labourers, security guards or drive multicoloured buses emblazoned with dazzling mandalas, peacocks and lions.

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

security official

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.

In a country facing a rising tide of Islamic extremism, the MQM sees itself as a bastion of secular, middle-class values – pointing proudly to its record in bolstering crumbling infrastructure. “Our five years of development work are more than what people have done in 55 years in Karachi,” says Mustafa Kamal, who won plaudits while serving as mayor from 2005 to 2010.

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.

The brutal spasms have acquired a self-reinforcing quality. The more fear people feel, the more they turn to parties for protection and the more powerful their leaders become. Killings are no longer confined to party activists: simply being Pashtun or Mohajir is enough. Commuters, taxi drivers and shopkeepers are all considered fair game. The ethnic Baluch community and other minorities are being sucked in.

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.”

With the state unable even to provide reliable electricity, expectations for justice are low. Outgunned and undermanned, the police are afraid to arrest assassins protected by powerful politicians. “We need the nod from the government to start looking for the people who are behind the targeted killings,” says a security official. “We’re not getting it.”

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

Seemin Jamali
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.