Armed Gangs Hold Pakistani City Hostage
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Taj Bibi’s eyes well up as she recalls the day her ten-year-old son was shot dead, a victim of the violence sweeping through the port city of Karachi since early July. "My three sons, the 12-year-old twins and Adnan, 10, went out to play cricket in the street after lunch. Around 4 pm, the twins came running to tell me that Adnan had been shot. By the time I got there he’d breathed his last," said Bibi, a Pashtun.
Qasba Colony where she lives has turned into a war zone, with hundreds reported dead in the latest bout of ethnic violence between Pashtuns and Mohajirs, that has become a feature of Karachi.
"I know who killed my son," Bibi says without a pause. "It’s the MQM; they want to get rid of the Pashtuns," she says. Her reference was to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which represents Mohajirs, or Urdu-speakers who arrived here from India after the 1947 partition of the Indian sub-continent.
Challenging the MQM’s dominance of Karachi is the Awami National Party (ANP) that defends the interests of Pashtun settlers from the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkwa province.
Although Pashtuns have been settling in Karachi for decades, their migration has increased after homelands in the northwest turned into a frontline in the United States-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Zahid Farooq, a social worker and resident of Qasba, holds both the MQM and the ANP responsible for the current round of violence. "This battle is in preparation for the next elections, almost a year from now."
Last month, the MQM parted ways with ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), dropping out of the coalitions that govern the centre and Sindh province, of which Karachi is capital.
The ANP, however, continues to be part of both provincial and central governments led by the PPP, showing up the fracture lines between the Mohajirs and the Pashtuns, especially in places like the volatile Qasba Colony.
"The Pashtuns are trying to organise themselves on the same lines as the MQM and make Qasba a Pashtun majority area. They are forcing the Urdu-speaking people to shift elsewhere. In other areas, the MQM is doing exactly the same," Farooq said.
Currently 50 percent of Qasba Colony’s 100,000 residents are Urdu-speaking Mohajirs while Pushtuns make up about 40 percent.
According to Farooq, the upshot of the ethnic wars is that Karachi is gradually being bifurcated along ethnic lines with trigger-happy gunmen opening up whenever someone transgresses a perceived boundary.
Peace activist Naeem Sadiq sees the carnage simply as "armed militant gangs fighting turf wars for control, influence, resources and land," while the blame gets passed on to the ethnic divide. Sadiq holds "government officials and politicians" equally responsible since many of them are known to be working hand-in-glove with criminal gangs.
Sadiq’s views gain credence in the light of the fact that the law enforcement agencies appear helpless in stemming the bloodbath, despite heavy deployment of police and paramilitary troops in the city.
With the wave of violence spilling over into August and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, there are fears that the final toll may surpass the 900 figure of those who died in the 1995 ethnic violence.
According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, of the 800 people killed since January, more than 300 died in July.
Karachi, with a population of nearly 18 million, is Pakistan’s largest metropolis and the country’s financial hub. The latest strife was among factors that caused the Karachi Stock Exchange to dip to a four-month low last week.
Civil society activists say it is the poor and the innocent who are taking the brunt of the violence rather than those who are likely to be investing in the stock exchange.
"Our years of work in education have come to a naught," says Abdul Waheed, who has for the last 18 years been running an educational non-governmental organisation in the Qasba Colony, motivating parents to send their children to school. Four public schools and another 20 private, semi-private or those being run on charity, remain shut as teachers do not venture into the violence-prone areas of Karachi.
Parents are equally reluctant to put their children at risk. "Since last month 14 schoolchildren have been shot dead," says Waheed. "Already an estimated 30,000 children are out of school in this poor neighbourhood which has a literacy rate of about seven percent.
"I don’t see the rulers worried about it; what they are worried about is that they remain in government. In any case not one rich or influential person has been killed; and the poor don’t count."
Waheed does not see an end to the violence anytime soon. "Not only do the poor get killed, caught as they are in the crosshairs, they remain stuck at home for days without food and unable to work, attend school or get medical help when violence erupts."
If there is an agenda that all political parties agree on it is the disarming of the city. "If you want to save Karachi, the face and index of Pakistan, then de-weaponise it," Azam Swati, minister for science and technology, told the national senate last week.
According to PPP senator Faisal Raza Abidi, there are 5,000 hit men in the city patronised by political parties. Civil society groups monitoring violence in the country believe there may be as many as 20 million firearms in Karachi, mostly illegal.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik has announced cancelling all gun licences by the end of the month. "From September anyone caught with a weapon with the old licences will be dealt with seriously," he said.
But such promises have often been made in the past and then abandoned for lack of political will, says Sadiq. "We need a government that is not corrupt; that itself does not consist of criminals and that is willing to go after the weapons. Regretfully, this is not the case today."