Posts Tagged ‘Karachi’

Growing up in Islamabad, I would sometimes visit relatives in Karachi, but was seldom able to grasp the nuanced chaos that Pakistan’s bustling port city exudes. But last week, while visiting Karachi for work, I paid closer attention. The city is, after all, widely covered in the news for its volatile security situation. Corruption & crime are rampant. Bullet-riddled bodies, victims of targeted killings, become just another statistic. Inflation, load-shedding, and stand-still traffic are debilitating. All of these are part of Karachi’s daily reality. But what is often left out in the news stories – not surprisingly – is the vibrancy of the city. The energy of Karachi is palpable. The chaos is somehow still orderly. The atmosphere can both exhaust you and make you feel alive. As a born-and-bred Karachiite recently told me, “You can’t live with Karachi, but you can’t live without it.”

It is this dual identity that author Steve Inskeep touches on in his book, Instant City: Life & Death in Karachi, in which he writes plainly, “Everything that makes this instant city vibrant can also make it violent.” With 13 million people, Karachi is one the larger cities in the world, becoming “a metropolis that has grown so rapidly that a returning visitor from a few decades ago would scarcely recognize it. The instant city retains some of its original character and architecture…but has expanded so much that the new overshadows the old.”

In the book, Inskeep does not pretend to be an expert on Karachi, which is refreshing considering the number of books on Pakistan written by “experts” these days. Instead, the journalist and host of the National Public Radio (NPR)’s Morning Edition writes as an observer, weaving both the country and city’s history around the occurrence of one tragic event – the bombing of a Shiite procession on Ashura in December 2009 that killed at least 30 people in Karachi. The bombing and subsequent burning of Bolton Market are telling given the history of the city – its relationship with minorities, the increased tension amongst ethnic, religious, and political groups over the years, the tit-for-tat violence, and even the broader struggle with Pakistan’s identity. Inskeep wrote,

In this expressly Islamic state, well over 90 percent of the populace shares the same basic faith, yet throughout Pakistan’s history…that surface unity has masked great diversity and deep divisions. The divisions are especially evident in Karachi, which after receiving migrants from many places is Pakistan’s most diverse city. Karachi also faces a diversity of conflicts, which came into play after the Ashura bombing.

But while Instant City revolves around the Ashura bombing, it does not remain fixed around that day. Instead, the incident is strung into the broader narrative of identity & tragedy – how a country that was established with such hope and promise could have veered so drastically off course. Inskeep uses a steady stream of anecdotes, showcasing Pakistan’s history since the 1947 Partition and introducing familiar characters from the Pakistani fabric – Ardeshir Cowasjee, Abdul Sattar Edhi, and even Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

One of my favorite spoken word poets Phil Kaye eloquently stated during his performance, Repetition, “If you repeat something over and over again it loses its meaning… If you just wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, one day you’ll forget why.” Words, and in the case of Pakistan, ideas, lose their meaning the more often we say them out loud. In the case of Jinnah, the father of our nation, his presence can be felt everywhere – from rupee notes when money changes hand to banners to street signs bearing his name. And yet despite this constant reminder of Jinnah in our daily lives, we now seem very far from his lofty aims for this state. In the book, Inskeep wrote, “It is easy to forget that Jinnah was a living man, with a taste for fine suits and waspish remarks.” Jinnah was a minority himself – a Shiite – and he knew “the minorities in his new nation could bring Pakistan strength…” The author quoted the Quaid-e-Azam further noting [during the Partition of India & Pakistan],

As far as I can speak for Pakistan, I say that there is no reason for any apprehension on the part of the minorities in Pakistan. It is for them to decide what they should do…I cannot order them.

Both Pakistan and Karachi are dubbed as peculiar, and this is a simple but apt reference. Pakistan is a country built on an idea, with aims purposefully vague, undefined, and lofty. Inskeep wrote, “Much of Pakistan’s history – and Karachi’s history – would be driven by the tension between the aspiration and the act.” Dawn columnist Cowasjee, a Karachiite through and through, told the author, “Jinnah told my father…that each government of Pakistan would be worse than the one that preceded it.” We are a nation that oscillates between extremes, schizophrenic in our intentions and unsettled in our reality. In the 60-plus years that we have been a state, we seem more uncomfortable in our skin than ever before. Though Inskeep’s book focuses specifically on the lights – both glittering & fading – of Karachi, the theme is very indicative of the wider national phenomenon. Life and death are two absolutes that are juxtaposed in the same daily reality in Karachi.

Instant City is a great read for a number of reasons. First, Inskeep rightly fixes his position as a humble observer instead of a smug pundit, making the book appear unassuming and non-judgmental. Second, he successfully weaves in a number of smaller narratives that showcase the multifaceted personality of Karachi and humanizes its history. Third, though there have been some criticisms surrounding the importance placed on the 2009 Ashura bombing in the story [some feel the Shiite attack was not indicative of Karachi’s wider issues], the underlying themes surrounding the incident and subsequent burning (most likely perpetrated by the city’s embedded land mafia) do speak to broader issues currently raging in Pakistan as a whole. In short, Inskeep’s book is unique in its voice, refreshing in its outlook, and nuanced in its approach. Is it the best treatment of the numerous issues facing Karachi today? No. But it also doesn’t claim to be. It offers a fresh voice, something I at least was grateful to see.

To purchase a copy of Steve Inskeep’s Instant City: Life & Death in Karachi, click here.

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Via AfPak/FP

For those of us on the outside looking in, Karachi’s violence seems exceedingly complex. I’m often left perpetually confused. But last October, journalist Huma Yusuf told me that the mechanics of the conflict are often the same – ethnically driven conflict over turf and power in the city. As we continue to delve into the underlying causes of each upsurge in violence, we observe this same pattern in different iterations. In a modest effort to break down the most recent conflict, in which more than 700 have been killed so far, 200 in the last month alone, I give you Karachi Violence FAQs Part III (Click here to see Part I, and here to see Part II).

FAQ: Who are the main parties in this conflict and how did it escalate out of control?

In Karachi Violence 101, which I wrote back in January 2010 [Note: this is by no means a comprehensive treatment of the violence over the past year, just a summary of what we’ve covered on CHUP], the main players in the conflict were workers or gang members associated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the political party which controls Karachi, and the Pakistan People’s Party, (PPP), who were then vying for control over land. Violence at the time was concentrated in Lyari Town in Karachi.

In October 2010, (see Karachi Violence 102) – tensions between the MQM and the Awami National Party (ANP) had spilled over in part because of the assassination of MQM’s Raza Haider and the subsequent by-election to replace his then-vacant seat. Violence and tensions were then concentrated in Orangi Town, one of Karachi’s largest and poorest slums, where the MQM had held the provincial seat since 1988 but where it was also considered the “tensest district divided between Mohajirs and Pathans,” noted Yusuf. So, again. Turf/Power = Violence [simplistic version].

In the most recent conflict, violence erupted after the murder of an ANP activist triggered an all-out war between the party and the MQM, noted Shaheryar Mirza in Caravan Magazine‘s “Karachi’s Turf Wars” (a must-read). The killings were once again first concentrated in Orangi, and became so escalated that media outlets called July, “the deadliest month in almost two decades.” (Although some sources claim the number was more than 200 killed, other outlets say it was upwards of 300.) On Tuesday, news agencies reported that in 24 hours, 26 people were killed, of which 18 were victims of targeted killings.

FAQ: So the violence this time around is between the MQM and the ANP, but where does the PPP stand in the conflict?

As with many of Karachi’s past escalations in violence, all three parties in the PPP-MQM-ANP trifecta appear to have some role in each iteration of the cycle. Last month, Sindh Minster and PPP member Zulfiqar Mirza caused an uproar after he made provocative remarks against the MQM’s Altaf Hussain, calling the leader of a breakaway MQM [MQM(H)], “the true leader of the Muhajirs” while accusing the main MQM of trying to divide Sindh. He further stated, “I call upon the people of Karachi and Hyderabad to get rid of these lowlifes.” The Express Tribune reported, “Mirza’s rant sparked an almost instant outburst of violent protests throughout Karachi, with aerial gunfire heard in nearly every part of the city.”

But wait. There’s more on the PPP dynamic in this conflict.

During a brief period between June and July, Sindh’s “longest-serving” Governor Ishratul Ibad resigned from office, after the MQM pulled out of the ruling coalition in protest over the postponement of elections of two Karachi seats in the Azad Jammu & Kashmir Legislative Assembly.  In the Friday Times, Ali K. Chishti wrote,

During the brief period in which the Sindh governor was away, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) undid the Local Governments Ordinance of 2001 and revived the 1979 Local Bodies Ordinance, restoring the magistrate system to manage the districts through commissioners and deputy commissioners.

Chishti added, “The PPP, which represents rural Sindh, wants to consolidate its position in the cities against the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) which represents urban Sindh.” Fellow blogger Umair Javed, on the tense MQM-PPP dynamic, wrote, “Those of you who’ve been following PPP-MQM relations over the last few years would know that agreeing on a time line for local government elections has remained a major thorn for the coalition,” [read the rest of his post to learn more].

So, incendiary remarks by a PPP member (though other party members distanced themselves immediately), and tensions surrounding the local government issue – both factors that make the conflict all the more exacerbated and intense. In regard to the current violence, the ruling party – the PPP – have  been watching from the sidelines this increasing breakdown of law and order. Bilal Baloch wrote last month for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel,

The dilemma is thus: How should the government respond effectively and objectively to the violence when it is the very political actors tasked with governing and solving Karachi’s problems that are themselves protagonists of the quagmire? When the workers and supporters of the MQM and ANP… are slaughtering one another, who should the ruling partner PPP, crack down on? They could move against the ANP, but this would effectively lead their government to collapse. Perhaps the government could use their iron fists against the MQM, but battering this powerful party, long the overlords of Karachi, traditionally results in political suicide.

Just this past week, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters, “We will take every possible action to restore peace in Karachi,” adding that results of the government’s action will be visible soon. In the meantime, calls for peace by the government and political parties have so far fallen on deaf ears. Finally, on Tuesday, the Pakistani government “authorized paramilitary forces to conduct raids in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods to try to restore order,” reported the NY Times.

FAQ: Calling in the [paramilitary] troops? What does that mean, exactly?

This is not the first time the government has called in the Rangers to curb the violence, nor is it the first time that the political parties involved in the conflict have asked for these forces to be deployed, [Ahsan from Five Rupees questions how the MQM could even do that in this post]. Back in January 2010, a journalist source told me, “The rangers that have been sent in with the police won’t make much of a difference, particularly since the police is politicized and doesn’t come under the jurisdiction of the city government. Dawn‘s Huma Yusuf noted last year, “…the MQM’s request for the Rangers, the army and intelligence agencies to maintain law and order in the city is akin to slapping a band-aid on a deep, infected wound.”

Interesting how history repeats itself, don’t you think? Or how I can cite analysis and statements made a year and a half ago during a different iteration of the violence and it still holds true today?

In terms of the role of the police in the situation, Baloch wrote in another AfPak piece this week, “Yet it is not the police themselves who are entirely to blame for the breakdown of law and order, but rather a system whereby politicians are able to use the police according to their whims…A revolution in police affairs needs to take place with regards to the relationship between the police and the province’s politicians.”

All of this further emphasizes how violence continues to be used as a political tool for intimidation and power. Mirza noted in the aforementioned Caravan piece how both parties take advantage of this, but the MQM tends to have the upper hand, particularly since they are more media savvy than their counterparts and can therefore demonize the other side more aptly.

FAQ: Amid the escalating violence, is there a potential solution?

So far, we have seen temporary solutions to a very endemic problem, a problem that is far too complex to be linear, far too brutal to be easily forgotten. The call for the Army and Rangers may quell the violence temporarily, but it is only a matter of time before Karachi erupts once again. A truce among the parties may also soon occur, but this also appears to be a short-term concession rather than a long-term solution.

On Monday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan urged in a statement, “While gangs of land-grabbers and mafias have tried to exploit the breakdown of law and order…they do not appear to be the main directors of the horrible game of death and destruction; that distinction belongs to more powerful political groups, and it is they who hold the key to peace.”

As Karachi continues to burn, Shaheryar Mirza noted poignantly, “Land is priceless in this growing metropolis, but lives have become increasingly worthless.”

Here’s praying for you, Karachi. 

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Source: The News

On Wednesday, news outlets report that a young man was “brutally murdered” in an extrajudicial killing that took place in Benazir Park in Karachi. According to Express, the man was accused to be a “snatcher,” or a robber, and was arrested by police who then handed him over to Ranger personnel who cornered him and then shot him in the stomach, despite the man’s pleas. The man is reported to be a ‘matric’ student, as well as the brother of a Samaa television reporter, and he died on the spot.

News outlets continue to play the footage of the shooting over and over again on television, which garnered much discussion on Twitter. Ammar Yasir tweeted, “Just watched the Samaa footage and I feel like throwing up. This happened in Karachi, imagine the extrajudicial murders in Balochistan,” while Tammy Haq noted, “Pakistan is a state of anarchy. Anyone can do what they like and get away with it.”

Express 24/7 reporter Shaheryar Mirza (@mirza9) tweeted, “Nothing shocking about this killing. What’s shocking is that it was caught on tape. Rangers have done this countless times before.”

As details unfold, it also is evident that Ranger personnel and police officials previously lied about details of the shooting, previously stating that the young man was armed and that 15-20 witnesses could testify to that. But, thanks to the footage, we now see that he was unarmed. In other words, noted Mirza, they were “caught red-handed.”

Hundreds of people have organized a “peaceful sit-in” outside the Chief Minister’s house in Karachi in protest of the killing.  MQM leader Wasay Jalil told Express, “Karachi has seen in its past extrajudicial killings…but the people of Pakistan will lose further confidence in the police…and law enforcement officials.”

CHUP will continue to provide updates of this tragic killing as more details come in, but feel free to share your thoughts and reactions in the comment section.

UPDATE 1745 EDT: Express reported, “Five men from the Ghazi wing of the Rangers are said to be involved in the incident, of whom two have been arrested.” The news agency further noted, “Initially, the police and Rangers had claimed that they were informed that a dacoit had held a family hostage in Benazir Bhutto Park. The security personnel claimed that they went inside the park and asked the man to surrender. When he refused to do so, the Rangers shot at him in retaliation. Shah was injured and died after reaching Jinnah Hospital, security personnel said.” Obviously, that was not the accurate report of the incident.

UPDATE 6/9: According to the Associated Press, Pakistani authorities are now investigating the video “as hundreds of angry mourners attended his funeral.” Here’s the account of the shooting:

It showed a man in civilian clothes wrestling what appeared to be a gun out of Shah’s hand and kicking him toward a group of Rangers. Shah said it was just a toy gun as he pleaded with a Ranger who pointed his rifle at his neck.

“I am helpless,” he said to the Rangers.

The men surrounded Shah and pointed their guns at him. He moved toward one Ranger with his arms outstretched, saying “No, no, don’t kill me brother.” He was pushed back and shot twice in the hand and leg.

Shah fell to the ground screaming and begged the Rangers to take him to a hospital, a longer version of the video posted on YouTube showed. They stood by as he writhed in an expanding pool of his own blood.

Shah was eventually taken to a local hospital but died shortly thereafter from “profuse bleeding,” said Seemi Jamali, director at the Jinnah Post Graduate Medical College.

The really sad part? Rehman Malik claiming the boy was a “criminal,” as if that somehow justifies this killing. Disgusting:

UPDATE 6/9 2000 EST: Another video is out (via Rabayl). So sad and disgusting:

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Post-PNS Mehran Thoughts

Star Wars Yoda. Cute & cuddly. No resemblance to armed militant.

By now, you’ve all heard of the shocking attack on PNS Mehran, Pakistan’s largest naval base this past Sunday in Karachi.

Here’s what we know:

  • Armed militants stormed the base, using ladders to scale the back wall of one of Pakistan’s premier naval air stations and destroy two U.S.-supplied P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft.
  • The base was “recaptured” by Pakistani security forces after a 17-hour gun battle, during which 10 personnel lost their lives, and 15 were injured.
  • Lieutenant Yasir Abbas, who was killed leading a counter-attack against the attackers, is being hailed as a national hero.
  • 17 foreign personnel – six Americans and 11 Chinese – were on the base at the time of the siege, but escaped without harm.
  • The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, telling Reuters by telephone, “It was the revenge of martyrdom of Osama bin Laden. It was the proof that we are still united and powerful.”
  • Interior Minister Rehman Malik refuses to admit that the attack was a serious breach of national security, and said it was due to an intelligence failure by the Air Force and Navy (via Al Jazeera English).
  • Malik said “external elements” (*cough* India/Zionists/Blackwater *cough*) may have been involved with the militants, although he did not provide evidence supporting this claim.
  • Malik also said the attackers resembled Star Wars characters, noting, “They were wearing black clothes like in Star Wars movies…”
  • Rehman Malik is an idiot.

Here’s what is still ambiguous:

  • A police report released after the attack said 10-12 militants were involved, although Pakistani officials (including Malik) said “up to six” were involved in the incident.
  • Sources say two of the attackers escaped, rather than being killed as was previously reported.

Here are the questions that still require answers:

  • How did 10-12 militants manage to launch an attack of this magnitude against Pakistan’s security establishment? (And no, “using ladders” is not a sufficient answer.)
  • Why did it take 17 hours for security forces to regain control of PNS Mehran?
  • Who was complicit in these attacks? Dawn newspaper (via AJE) questioned whether the attackers had help from the security establishment, writing, “Did the Taliban raiders have information inside the naval base? Such a possibility cannot be ruled out, because the involvement of serving personnel in several previous attacks has been well-established.”
  • After all this loss, how can anyone still claim that this is anything but our war? How can anyone credibly claim that the enemies are conspiratorial foreign hands? How?

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Violence in Karachi 102


NYT: AFP/Getty Image

Back in January, I wrote a post entitled, “Violence in Karachi 101,” in which I attempted to break down the players in the  then-conflict, the root causes, and potential solutions, thanks mainly to interviews with journalists covering the issue on the ground. In Karachi, violence and political tensions have erupted time and time again, cloaking the city in bloodshed and garnering momentary headlines.

Huma Imtiaz wrote in the NY Times yesterday, “Targeted killings of various ethnic groups and political parties’ workers have left more than 300 people dead since 2008.” In recent months, noted Dawn Newspaper, Karachi has suffered “the worst such violence in years with 85 people killed after a lawmaker was shot dead in August.” Since Saturday alone, more than 70 people have died in the city as the result of such killings. Imtiaz reported,

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), representing the city’s Muhajirs, and Awami National Party, (ANP), with a dominant Pathan support base, have had tense relations. The MQM has accused the ANP of supporting organized crime and the ANP charges that its opponent is a terrorist organization that is responsible for the killings of Pathan residents. Both parties are coalition partners with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party in Sindh.

But what are the nuances of this conflict? Are the players involved the same as previous spates of violence and are they motivated by the same root causes? For those of us not from or currently living in Karachi, the nuances of the conflict seem daunting to comprehend. Below, two journalists – Huma Yusuf from Dawn (currently the Pakistan fellow at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) and Shaheryar Mirza, a Karachi-based reporter for Express 24/7, provide insight and help answer some FAQ’s related to Karachi’s most recent outbreak of violence:

Q: News agencies report that unrest first broke out in Karachi on Saturday, a day before a by-election was slated to be held for a provincial assembly seat left vacant after Raza Haider from the MQM was assassinated in August. Was the by-election the cause of this recent outbreak of violence or was it merely a catalyst following months of escalating tensions?

According to Yusuf, the mechanics of the conflict are the same as always – ethnically driven conflict over turf and power in Karachi. Although the by-election can be seen as the “catalyst” for the recent violence, political/religious/ethnic tensions are always simmering in the city. Orangi Town, the site of the by-elections, is the “tensest district in Karachi that is divided between the Mohajirs and the Pathans,” and the assassination of Raza Haider led this to be a very emotionally-charged election among MQM’s constituents.

Mirza added, the MQM has held the provincial (MPA) seat in Orangi Town since 1988. Although mostly Urdu-speaking communities live in Orangi, “it borders many different areas which have absorbed the large influx of Pashtun immigrants. Therefore, the two communities, as they expand, run into each other and begin to overlap.” As a result, he added, “some votes are won and lost in the new overlap,” leading to competition for power or “turf.”  Competing groups subsequently use violence and extortion to rule certain areas. “It is a lot like the way gangs exert their influence in other countries except that in Karachi, political parties are behind it.”

However, noted Mirza, this “political turf war” is only one aspect of Karachi’s violence. The drug mafias, criminal organizations, militant groups, student organizations, and ethnic violence “all overlap and link with each other through politics, ethnicity, and religion,” creating a complex web of unrest and tensions.

Q: This is obviously not the first time tensions in Karachi resulted in violence – is this spate of killings part of the larger trend from the past or is it different? (Are the killings less targeted and more indiscriminate?)

According to Yusuf, this recent outbreak of violence appear to be more brutal, mass killings, inclusive of people other than party workers (like the assassination of shopkeepers near Shershah).  She noted, “This could indicate two things; (1) Since the MQM has been worrying about shifting demographics in Karachi (in favor of a growing Pashtun voting block) the stakes of this round of violence are higher, and the parties are trying to give each other sterner/more violent messages than before. And (2) the involvement of other criminal groups and gangs (i.e. the Lyari gangsters that MQM has complained of). This is not a new phenomenon, but indicates a worsening level of security, law and order control.”

Mirza also noted the conspiracy theories surrounding the killings. “Amongst people who have been reporting on crime in the city for a long time, it is a common assertion that intelligence agencies also play a part in the violence – whether it is to raise tensions and pit certain groups against each other or for small-time political assassinations.” Another conspiracy theory, he added, “is that a certain political party will assassinate members of their own party (if they want to get rid of them in any case for instance) to basically show that their leaders are getting killed and trigger an ‘operation’ in an enemy area.”

He also noted another important aspect of these killings – the resulting perception amongst people within the community.

I was in Orangi town during the elections and a man came up to me and asked me where I was from. I told him I’m Urdu-speaking. He became comfortable and said, “First it was the Sindhis that were killing us, then the Punjabis and now the Balochis.” He was not affiliated with the MQM but was Urdu-speaking. This is important because this is felt by many who are directly affected by the killings. Political parties have ethnic foundations in Pakistan despite what they may proclaim. But when these killings take place, people will forget about the turf war and think simply that it is a matter of ‘wiping out’ their ethnic communities or oppressing them. The parties play on these emotions and the people support their parties as a result of this.

Q: What role do politicians from these parties play versus the supposed political agents that are perpetrating these killings? How does this impact the political sphere?

According to Mirza, “It is hard to say exactly how much role the politicians play in the actual ‘ordering’ of killings and the like.” Much of the violence is perpetrated on a more local level through local actors and agents from political parties, with “some resulting from personal enmities within rival parties in an area.”

He added, “The PPP has a greater disconnect from its lower cadres than the MQM. In Karachi, it is said the MQM is so well disciplined and organized that it would be unheard of that any action is taken without the direct consent of its supreme leader.” However, Mirza added, “I find this hard to believe and the rapid spiralling nature of violence contradicts the fact that every killing can be ordered from such a high place.” The political sphere is impacted a lot through the blame game. “The MQM has specifically identified politicians and political agents it thinks are responsible, bringing them into the public sphere. The politicians seem to be immune from a lot of the personal attacks, except for how they are viewed within their rival’s minds.”

Q: Much like before, Army rangers were deployed in the city to restore order. Is this productive in breaking the cycle of violence in Karachi?

According to Yusuf,

The Rangers’ presence historically has succeeded in reducing incidents of violence. The problem, though, is that deploying the Rangers is not a long-term, systemic solution to the deep-rooted problems of Karachi violence. It’s just a temporary band-aid, one that loses effectiveness once the elite forces step away from tense areas. In some ways, reliance on the Rangers over the years has worsened the problem, because that means the police have remained largely inept and corruptible in the face of Karachi’s complicated ethnic and turf wars.

While it is good that the federal government and politicians have been taking increasing note of Karachi’s violence, added Yusuf, “the truth is that this is a local problem, with well entrenched powerful local actors. The solution will have to come from within Karachi, not from Islamabad.”

Q: As a journalist reporting on this issue on the ground in Karachi, what are some obstacles or frustrations you face in your coverage?

As is common with most types of war/conflict reporting, noted Mirza, the people who get killed become a statistic in the news process. He added, “We aren’t given the space to pursue the families and give the victims a face or their families a voice. The reporting is very simplistic when it comes to targeted killings.” Moreover, he noted, a lot of killings that take place during a long spate of targeted killings “get falsely reported and lumped into the overall death toll.” This exacerbates the situation, making it seem worse than it is, and panicking the public even more.”

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Vuvuzelas in Lyari

Image credit: Dawn

Ok, maybe not vuvuzelas. But certainly crazed football fans.

The 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa is currently underway, and fans throughout the world have been riveted to television screens, celebrating or cursing the results (ah, Italia). In Lyari, one of the most densely populated slums in Karachi, the World Cup has been a welcome alternative to the constant gang violence, unemployment, poverty and drugs, [see this CHUP backgrounder on past Karachi violence]. According to The News, Lyari has been known for two things – gang warfare and producing some of Pakistan’s best football players (including Abdul Ghafoor, the ‘Pele’ of Pakistan). During the World Cup, Lyari yields to the latter, with residents arranging and setting up big screens (an Express 24/7 correspondent I spoke to said gang members often set up the screens because the population is so intermingled with gangs) on the streets for the community to enjoy the games together.

Their football team of choice? Five-time World Cup winner, Brazil.

One local resident told Dawn, “Lyari is Brazil’s den and people seek happiness in football, especially Brazil, because they love this team and its players.” Another Lyari resident added, “Watching football is our only enjoyment. We forget all the pain and suffering in the 90-minute action and everyone wants Brazil to win the sixth title on July 11.”

So much so that one “footballer-cum-gangster” told The News that he would have “shot at” the referee for giving Brazilian player Kaka a red card during the recent Brazil-Ivory Coast match. The young gang member, part of Rehman Baloch‘s gang (Lyari is dominated by two gangs, one that follows Ghaffar Zikri and the Uzair Baloch group under the late Rehman Baloch) told the news agency that he wants Brazil “to win at any cost,” especially against Argentina.

According to Dawn, some people of Lyari also support Brazil because they see them as “spiritual cousins.” A local journalist noted, “The people of this area see racial similarities with Brazil, like if they are black and have curly hair they feel they are like South Americans and they play with the same style.” Interestingly, Lyari is considered a center for the Sheedi community, who are believed to be descendants of African sailors who came to Karachi 200 years ago.

During the 2006 World Cup, news agencies reported that Lyari’s crime rate actually fell. Given the relative silence that has descended upon the slum during this tournament, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar trend, a true testament to how sports unites divided communities, even if such unity is transient and is likely to dissipate in its aftermath. But it is also a testament to how football and other sports (namely, cricket) could be used as part of a longer-term strategy to break the cycle of violence and poverty in areas like Lyari. The aforementioned young gangster told The News, “I used to play football, but I ended up carrying a gun due to the twists life had in store for me…It was my utmost desire to die as a great soccer player, but, sadly, I happened to be born in a neighbourhood where wishes are just not answered.” Obviously, sports alone cannot tackle the complex issues and layers of violence plaguing these Karachi slums. But given the potential, talent, and passion evident among the community, it very well could be part of a solution.

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Stay Safe, Karachi

AFP/Getty Images

On Friday, a series of bomb blasts struck Karachi, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 70 others. The first attack occurred Friday afternoon, when a motorcycle rigged with 15 kilograms of explosives detonated next to a bus on Shareh-e-Faisal carrying Shias to a religious procession marking the end of Muharram.

Less than two hours later, “a second explosion was heard outside the emergency ward of Jinnah Hospital where the injured were being shifted,” reported Dawn. Bomb disposal official Munir Sheikh told the news agency the bombing was also caused by explosives strapped to a motorcyle in the hospital’s parking lot. News agencies reported that another bomb was also recovered and defused from Jinnah Hospital. According to Express 24/7, 25 kilograms of explosives was planted in a a computer “box,” which was later identified by security personnel present at the hospital.

Given that previous attacks have sparked riots in Karachi, officials in the city immediately appealed for calm following the bombings. Waseem Ahmed, the Karachi police chief reportedly urged Shia mourners to carry on peacefully with their processions in other parts of the city, and Karachi’s mayor Mustafa Kamal was quoted saying, “Innocent lives have been lost, but people should not lose patience and kindly stay peaceful.” Express 24/7 spoke to other officials of the MQM, including Farooq Sattar, who pledged that the victims’ families would each receive 500,000 Rupees and the injured would receive 100,000 Rupees. The party also called for three days of mourning following today’s attacks.

No one has so far claimed responsibility for Friday’s twin bombings. Given past events, it is likely the perpetrators were militants connected to the Jaish-e-Muhammad/Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi/Sipah-e-Sahba nexus. In December, more than 50 people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a Shia procession commemorating Ashura in Karachi. Following the attack, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reported, “This pattern shows that this was a joint venture between Tehreek-i-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ),” a Punjabi militant group that is sectarian in essence. In the April issue of the CTC Sentinel, Hassan Abbas wrote that the LeJ is believed to be “the lynch pin of the alignment between Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian groups.”

It is therefore impossible to pinpoint one group given the blurred lines between Pakistan’s militant and criminal groups. While the sectarian nature of Friday’s bombings bore a resemblance to December’s suicide bombing in Karachi, I wonder whether the recent [and still unconfirmed] death of Tehreek-e-Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud have spurred “revenge” attacks similar to those following the death of Baitullah Mehsud this past summer. Yesterday, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad were all put on red alert, with reports that 10 suicide bombers had entered Karachi (only two had been caught).

We may not be entirely certain who was responsible for today’s attacks, but it is nevertheless horrific that they could happen at all. If all three cities were placed on red alert yesterday, was there not more that could be done to prevent today’s deaths? The targeting of Shia pilgrims as well as a hospital is not only tragic, but frankly also sickening. Is nowhere in Pakistan safe or untouched anymore?

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Violence in Karachi 101

(LA Times: Rehan Khan / European Pressphoto Agency) Protest in Karachi

LA Times: Rehan Khan / European Pressphoto Agency

The recent spate of targeted killings in Karachi has garnered much media coverage, with news agencies reporting that 41 people have died in the commercial capital since the beginning of the year, “including 10 MQM workers, 10 from a breakaway faction called Haqiqi, and 16 members of a committee set up by the ruling party in Lyari to control violence in the area.” Most of the victims were reportedly killed because of their political affiliations.

According to BBC News, “It was the discovery of the decapitated body of an activist from the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in the old city area of Lyari which sparked off the latest round of violence.” Speaking to the LA Times, analyst Ikram Sehgal described the current situation in Karachi, “Think of Chicago or New York a century ago.”

Despite joint calls by PPP and MQM leaders to restore order to the city, this is not the first time such a conflict has erupted. Dawn’s Huma Yusuf reported,

Karachi has a long history of ethnic conflict, sectarian violence, land mafias and intra- and inter-party tensions. All these have been in play during this past fortnight, making it abundantly clear that a discerning approach to Karachi’s violence is required. Policing and investigations into recent incidents must be informed by knowledge of ‘local’ social, political and economic factors, which in this city of 18 million differ from locality to locality. For that reason, the MQM’s request for the Rangers, the army and intelligence agencies to maintain law and order in the city is akin to slapping a band-aid on a deep, infected wound.

For many of us not from or currently living in Karachi, such a complex situation may seem daunting or difficult to understand. Below are some FAQ’s to better breakdown the nuances of this conflict:

Q: Who are the main parties in this conflict and how did it escalate out of control?

While Karachi has many rival gangs and factions, the main parties in the current conflict are workers or gang members associated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which controls Karachi, and the Pakistan People’s Party, (PPP) which controls the provincial government of Sindh, of which Karachi is the capital.

While some of the recent killings have been linked to the general crime syndicates, many have been attributed to the land mafia, noted a journalist currently covering the story in Karachi.

The LA Times, in its coverage, noted, “Rival gangs aligned with political parties are at war in part because a large number of long-term land leases are about to expire, some dating back nearly a century to the days of British rule, with ownership reverting back to the local government.” Although Sehgal told the news agency, “This is all about land. It’s incredibly valuable and it’s up for grabs,” the journalist I spoke to noted,

For political expediency things are being blamed on just the land mafia or just the Baloch gangs in Lyari whereas it’s really a broader mix of elements. Some of it may be about land but in the end it’s all political and some say it has been linked with the abolishment of the local government system.

Ultimately, Karachi has a long history of factional violence and gang warfare, so many of these factors have become yet another reason to reopen old wounds.

Q: Why has Lyari been the hot spot for the recent violence and attention?

Lyari Town, one of 18 constituent towns in Karachi, is dominated by ethnic Balochis, who form a major vote bank for the PPP. The area has become the center of the rise in killings due to the lawless nature of the area, populated by gangs involved in  activities like extortion and drugs. The journalist I spoke to noted, “The Baloch [in Lyari] have been an easy target because they don’t have proper representation in the government. The PPP gets their votes from this group but they don’t adequately represent them.”

In response to the government’s subsequent deployment of paramilitary forces to Lyari, (which led to nearly 50 arrests), Lyari’s People’s Aman [“Peace”] Committee launched a protest on Monday against both PPP and MQM leaders. One organizer of the rally told reporters, “The government is victimizing its own people to appease its political allies, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. We demand an operation in the whole city without any discrimination.” My journalist source, who has been reporting on the story, noted that many believe the government is undertaking this operation to show that “something is being done,” and targeted Lyari because it is an area that “can easily be disturbed without great political repercussions.”

Q: How effective have these paramilitary troops been in restoring some semblance of control in Karachi?

As the targeted killings increased over the weekend, Interior Minister Rehman Malik ordered patrols by police and paramilitary rangers to curb the violence, while asserting that political parties were not involved in the killings. While this appeared to work, at least temporarily, the LA Times noted that many in Karachi “didn’t expect it to last.” The aforementioned journalist source, based in Karachi, echoed, “The rangers that have been sent in with the police won’t make much of a difference, particularly since the police is politicized and doesn’t come under the jurisdiction of the city government.

Q: If violence between rival gangs and factions associated with political parties is not a new phenomenon, how can the cycle be broken?

According to Dawn’s Huma Yusuf, recognizing that the dynamics of Karachi’s violence is locally defined (i.e. not associated with militancy in Swat for example) and entrenched in a long history is “the first step towards effectively maintaining peace and stability.”

In the opinion of the journalist I interviewed, one immediate and long-term solution is developing a better funded and “de-politicized” police force, which can provide a more solid foundation for law and order. He noted, “29,000 police with around 90 odd police stations in a city of 18 million is completely inadequate.”

Although joint statements by the MQM and the PPP in the aftermath of these killings is significant, a top-down political solution will not be sufficient in fully addressing the multiple problems that exist on the ground. If the government seeks to achieve a long-term solution, [not just a strategy that places a band-aid over the problem] it must address the systematic root causes behind the violence and the inter-rivalries. Whether it’s the drug, land, or tanker mafia, this has ultimately been a struggle for power with continuously dire consequences.

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Bombing in Karachi Kills 25

Image: Reuters

On Monday, a suicide bomber attacked a Shia procession commemorating Ashura in Karachi, killing at least 25 people and injuring 50. Today’s incident on MA Jinnah Road was the latest in a string of violence in Pakistan this past weekend. Following the assassination of mid-level political administrator Sarfaraz Khan and his family in the Kurram tribal area Sunday, a suicide bomber killed at least 10 people and wounded more than 80 during a Shia religious procession in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. According to the Guardian, this attack “shook the authorities as the city and region has a much better record of Shia-Sunni relations during Muharram than most other parts of Pakistan.”

On Sunday, more than a dozen people were wounded in an incident in Karachi. Although the bombing was later attributed “to a build-up of gas in faulty sewage pipes,” extra paramilitary troops had reportedly been mobilized in Karachi and the rest of the country had been put on “red alert” prior to Muharram (in Lahore, all entry and exit points to Shia processions for Ashura were sealed and all participants had to reportedly queue for scanners). Despite the heightened security and “stringent” measures, a bomber walking amid the procession managed to blow himself up during the climax of Muharram, when worshipers were commemorating the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.

The anger and fear following Monday’s attack in Karachi was palpable, manifested by people in the crowd firing shots into the air and others pelting police and medical teams with stones.  According to Al Jazeera, “Local television stations reported that more than a dozen vehicles and a four-story building were also set ablaze by people reacting to the attack.” Talat Hussain from AAJ Television told the news agency, “People have been saying that the government has been apathetic to the listening to the warnings of potential attacks and people’s fears.”

Numerous political officials condemned the bombing Monday and appealed for calm. Karachi’s mayor Mustafa Kamal asserted, “I want to appeal to the people, to my brothers, my elders to stay calm. I am hearing people are clashing with police and doctors. Please do not do that. That is what terrorists are aiming at. They want to see this city again on fire.” MQM leader Altaf Hussain, speaking to GEO News, echoed this appeal but added that he had been “repeatedly warning the citizens of Karachi and Pakistan” about the threat of Talibanization. “The authorities,” he noted, “did not pay heed to my warnings.”

Interior Minister Rehman Malik showed off his business euphemisms Monday when he appealed to Shias to cancel their next two days of processions, adding, “This pattern shows that this was a joint venture between Tehreek-i-Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).” This recognition of a connection between the “Pakistani Taliban” and the militant groups in Punjab is significant, particularly since groups like the LeJ and Sipah-e-Sahba are sectarian (anti-Shia) in essence.

In the April issue of the CTC Sentinel, Hassan Abbas wrote that the LeJ is believed to be “the lynch pin of the alignment between Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian groups.” In the Long War Journal‘s coverage of Monday’s Karachi bombing, Bill Roggio noted the LeJ has a strong presence in South Waziristan, “where it formed alliances with the Taliban, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Al Qaeda, and created a group called the Fedayeen-e-Islam,” which claimed responsibility for several attacks, including September 2008 attack on Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel and the March 2009 storming of the Lahore police station. In the wake of the military’s operation in South Waziristan, the LeJ and militants part of the TTP network reportedly shifted fighters to Karachi. Roggio noted, “Last week, Karachi police told the Daily Times that they had intelligence that indicated Lashkar-e-Jhangvi would strike at the Shia in Karachi.”

Watching the news footage on Karachi today, I can’t help but find President Zardari‘s favorite line, “Democracy is the best revenge” (most recently propagated here) hollow and irrelevant. With the country burning, corruption endemic, food prices high, and governance weak, “democracy” seems to be the least of our worries.

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Reuters: Rescue workers from Edhi Foundation carry victims

Reuters: Rescue workers from Edhi Foundation carry victims

On Monday, at least 19 women were killed in a stampede in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Karachi. According to the NY Times, “The stampede occurred as a local trader was distributing food [flour, lentils and other goods] in Khori Garden, a sprawling neighborhood in the southern part of the city. Hundreds of women and children had gathered in the narrow lanes, and witnesses said the women tumbled over one another trying to enter a building in an attempt to collect the food first.” 25 people were reportedly injured in the incident.

BBC NewsArman Sabir noted that the key cause of the tragedy was “the unexpected arrival of large numbers of people.” The crowding and congestion at the distribution site later exacerbated the situation, making it difficult for ambulances and rescue workers to get through. Waseem Ahmed, Karachi’s police chief, told reporters, “The incident happened because the distribution was taking place in a very confined area without any precautions,” adding that the man distributing the free flour, identified as Chaudhry Iftikhar, was detained “because he had not given police prior notice.”

According to Bloomberg, President Asif Ali Zardari has called for an inquiry into the stampede, ordering the Sindh government “to appoint a High Court judge to lead the probe and report within a week on who is responsible for the tragedy.” Zardari “took serious note of the poor arrangements to manage huge crowds,” adding that local authorities should have ensured the distribution was “smooth and safe.” Dawn reported that Sindh’s Chief Minister has promised a compensation of one lakh rupees (100,000 rs.) for the families of the victims.

Media outlets provided several eyewitness accounts of the stampede Monday, humanizing the tragedy further. Fatima Hashim, a 55 year old woman whose daughter was seriously injured Monday, told Al Jazeera, “The place where wheat flour was being distributed was very narrow, which suffocated hundreds of women and children…I went along with two of my daughters to get two bags of flour, but now my younger daughter is struggling for life in the hospital.”

Amina, a maid at a government school in Lyari told Dawn News,

I would have never come here to get flour if the inflation rate was not as high. The price hike this year has made it difficult for us to feed our large families and the government does not seem to care. Every day I stand in long queues to purchase atta (flour) at Rs. 10 per kg, but return home empty-handed. Today, when I heard that free flour was being distributed by someone, I immediately rushed to try my luck here as well…As soon as I reached out to get a bag of flour, two women jumped on my back and I fell down. The crowd stepped on me and I couldn’t breathe for a while and then fell unconscious. My neighbor brought me to the hospital.

In the wake of this heart-breaking incident, it seems we are all trying to find a scapegoat. Authorities blamed the man distributing the food for not taking the necessary precautions in a confined area. Zardari, in his statement Monday, pointed the finger at the local authorities, asserting they should have ensured that food distribution was safe and secure. According to The News, one eyewitness even shifted responsibility to the crowd, blaming the “intolerant, ill-mannered and impatient women.”

At the end of the day, the problem is much larger than the man who didn’t clear the area with the authorities, or the authorities who didn’t ensure the crowd’s safety, or the women who impatiently charged ahead for free rations of food. Tuesday’s Dawn editorial echoed my sentiments exactly when it stated, “The women and children who jostled and pushed their way towards handouts were not driven by greed; they were driven by hunger and the fear of starvation.”

According to the World Food Program, 24 percent of Pakistan’s population is undernourished and 38 percent of children are underweight. The current state of hunger, noted the agency, is “alarming.” Moreover, factors like Ramadan and the sugar and wheat shortages have exacerbated rising food prices. Given that two-thirds of Pakistan’s 160 million people subsist on less than $2 a day, a surge in food prices endangers their very survival. As Dawn noted, “The accouterments of [Pakistan’s] state power and prestige ring hollow when people are dying in their search for food.”

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