Gangsters and politicians collude to turn Karachi into a hell for ordinary folk.
ETHNIC warfare in Pakistan’s most populous city has reached such a level that Karachi’s ambulance service now has to send out a driver matching the racial make-up of the destination district to pick up the victims of gang attacks. Otherwise, the district’s gunmen will not let the ambulance through. Now ambulances themselves are coming under fire, as gangsters try to stop them saving the lives of their enemies. Karachi’s ethnic wars have claimed some 1,000 lives this year, with more than 100 in the past week alone. By contrast the Taliban and other religious extremists kill tiny numbers in Karachi.
A grisly new feature of the carnage is that people are not just being shot. They are being abducted and tortured; then their bullet-ridden, mutilated bodies are dumped in sacks and left in alleyways and gutters. Victims’ limbs, genitals or heads are often severed. Torture cells operate across Karachi. The butchery is filmed on mobile phones and passed around, spreading the terror further. Most victims are ordinary folk randomly targeted for their ethnicity.
At the city’s Abbasi Shaheed Hospital, a public facility, doctors treat only Mohajirs, who dominate the local district and are the biggest ethnic group in Karachi. Mohajirs are descendants of those who moved to Pakistan from India in 1947, when the subcontinent was partitioned. Ambulance crews must determine the ethnicity of patients and take them to the right hospital.
If this were just a turf war between criminal gangs, things might be brought under control. But each gang has the patronage of a mainstream political party, in a fight that exploded in 2008 when an election was held to end Pakistan’s latest period of military rule. Political support for warring ethnic gangs means the police largely stay out of the conflict: each gang will call on political muscle if its henchmen are rounded up. The provincial authorities launched a crackdown this week, but little is expected of it.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a party established in the 1980s that claims to represent the Mohajirs, once had an iron grip over Karachi. That monopoly is now being challenged by the Awami National Party, which says it speaks for the ethnic Pushtun population, who migrated from the north-west of the country, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of President Asif Zardari, which heads the ruling coalition in the capital, Islamabad. Its gang following is ethnic Baloch, from the neighbouring province of Balochistan. It is the MQM versus the rest.
The conflict’s ferocity may yet threaten Pakistan’s fragile return to democracy. In recent days Karachi businesses have called for the army to restore order. Violence in Karachi was repeatedly used as part of the justification for toppling four national governments in the 1990s. This city of 18m people is Pakistan’s economic lifeline, and the port through which most supplies reach NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Away from the ritzy villas of Defence and Clifton districts, the people of Karachi’s 3,500 square-kilometre (1,350 square-mile) sprawl live in decrepit homes and apartment blocks set on narrow, filthy streets, where gangs rule with near impunity. Trouble often flares when one ethnic ghetto abuts another.
In Korangi, a ramshackle semi-industrial district in the east of the city mainly inhabited by Mohajirs, Pervez has not been to work for 20 days. He mends tyres on Tariq Road in the city centre, a half-hour bus ride away. But since gangs started pulling people off buses and killing them, he has been too afraid to venture out. “The Pushtuns will cut your throat,” Pervez says. “If I am killed, what will my children do?”
Kashif Malik, a 32-year-old rickshaw driver and PPP activist, was at home with a friend, Shoib, in Orangi Town, in Karachi’s north-west, when gunmen came to the door. Shoib was killed, while Mr Malik was lucky only to be shot in the arm. He is sure the assailants were from the MQM. Mr Malik insists that joining a political party offers the safest protection these days. “A lone person cannot survive in Karachi,” says Mr Malik from his bed at the Civil Hospital. Most of those killed are not involved with any political party. Language, clothes and even haircuts betray a person’s ethnicity to the killing squads.
For more than two decades the MQM has collected extortion money, known as bata, from businesses and homes across the city. Now, using the political backing they acquired in the 2008 election, gangsters associated with the PPP and the Awami National Party, in a loose alliance, also want their share of cash, at the heart of the conflict. Businesses now have to pay off up to three rival groups. In the past week Karachi’s markets selling marble, bathroom tiles and medicines have separately staged protests against bata.
As for the political parties, they seem to be able to turn the violence off and on as it suits them. This suggests that these are not mere criminals draping themselves in the party flag, but rather integral parts of the parties’ political machines. If the violence continues, more ordinary people will be forced to seek the protection of a political party, to which they will have to pay more dues. Perhaps this is what the politicians are aiming for.
“You can call this the politicisation of crime, or the criminalisation of politics,” says a security official in the city. “The state has lost its writ in Karachi.”