The tragedy of Karachi

Beena Sarwar

Will it be possible to write about the tragedy of Karachi...?” asked my editor. 

Possible, yes. Easy, no. In two words: turf wars. But behind that is a long, complex history, bound up in money, crime, politics, power and greed. 

The half-a-million households dependent on daily wages in Karachi go hungry when the city shuts down during a strike or if their bread-earners don’t go to work due to violence. Staying home means hunger; going out is risky. 

Violence over the last two months has claimed over 400 lives in this megapolis of 18 million people. 88 were killed during just six days in August, before the violence started tapering off. 

Most victims fell to sniper’s bullets or crossfire between warring factions linked to one or other political party. Some were killed in their homes, or dragged out of public buses, targeted for their ethnicity. Some were tortured to death, heads and limbs hacked off, bodies found in gutters or street corners. 

The bloody summer of 2011 reminds me of the 1990s, when tortured bodies were found in gunnysacks. Then, as now, some people are calling for the army to be brought in. Then, as now, this will not resolve the issues.

In the 1990s, the violence started after the dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq died, as though a lid had been lifted off a boiling pot. The difference is that now, the perpetrators include parties other than the one behind the earlier bloodshed. And also now, grainy, graphic videos of torture and murder are suddenly available. Although apparently linked to the Karachi violence, there is no indication of when or where they were filmed - but the perpetrators in them apparently belong to certain ethnic groups. 

These videos, made viral by the social media, have added to Karachiites’ sense of alarm, helplessness and frustration. Outraged youngsters sharing them inadvertently stoke hatred between communities, contributing to the brutalisation, alienation and anger. 

Regardless of ethnicity, there are human victims in the videos. But the speech that’s audible doesn’t necessarily represent those it appears to. The ‘ethnic’ divisions being played up overshadow the fact that at the heart of the matter is money. 

Protection money, extortion money, donations, ‘chanda’, ‘bhatta’ -- call it what you will. Until recently, one party got the lion’s share. Now, criminals, associated with other political parties as well as jihadis, are competing for the cash. 

Since the 1980s, Karachi has also borne the fallout of the Afghan conflict -- guns, drugs, millions of refugees. The war fought in the name of religion has spawned generations of ‘religious’ militants. The earlier ‘mujahideen’ were allies; their successors are enemies – with sympathetic friends within the infrastructure that supported the mujahideen. Karachi’s dense, concrete jungle, dotted with madrassahs that provide ‘R & R’ to jihadists, generates considerable wealth for them.

‘Leads’ for the rising kidnapping for ransom cases in Karachi sometimes indicate that the hostage is on the Afghan border – when all along he’s being held in Karachi.

Senior politician Taj Haider of Pakistan People’s Party told journalist Shahid Husain that it takes about 100,000 rupees to arm a militant. He estimates there are 300,000 illegal and legal guns in Karachi. “Extortionists take Rs 5000 per shipping container. About 3,000 containers land at Karachi port everyday,” he said. “Gun running is a very lucrative business.”

Extortionists would make personal visits for this money. Now they often just send ‘parchis’ (notes), says analyst Arif Hasan, a well-known architect and town-planner.

“Sometimes one receives more than one parchi from different sources. If you ignore the parchi, you are threatened with death or kidnapping. If you still ignore it, the kidnapping takes place or you are killed. More recently, failure to comply results in a hand grenade being thrown at your shop,” he adds. 

The tragedy of Karachi is a poor law and order situation. The police need a free hand to deal with it, but instead are prevented from proceeding because one or other political party backs the criminals. And the tragedy of Karachi is politics. The main parties involved must arrive at a power-sharing arrangement - for which the dominant party of Karachi will have to compromise the most. 

Until then Karachiites can stay braced for more bloodshed.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2011