Pakistan's Biggest City Torn By Ethnic Violence

Aug 31, 2011
Originally published on September 1, 2011 8:39 pm

Pakistan's long list of problems has a new addition this summer: vicious communal violence in Karachi.

More than 300 people have been killed in recent weeks, some under grisly circumstances that include decapitations, torture chambers and bodies placed in gunnysacks and dumped on the side of the road.

The neighborhood of Lyari, a warren of streets and rampant crime, has been a no-go zone during the escalating violence. The Date Market is a landmark in this congested part of Old Karachi. It's showing signs of life now, but some are still reluctant to venture out at a time when they should be marking the end of Ramadan, and a month of daytime fasting, with the celebration of the Eid holiday.

"It's really very bad, especially for the laborers and the working-class people, they have been crushed because of this violence," said Mohammad Naeem Baloch, a date merchant. "In such conditions, how would you celebrate Eid?"

A City Of Ethnic Tensions

Karachi was a modest port city at Pakistan's independence in 1947. It's now a sprawling, chaotic mega-city with roughly 18 million people, though no one knows the number for sure. Much of that growth has come from migrants. They include the ethnic Baloch from the rural southwest of the country. In addition, Pashtuns have come in large numbers from the war-ravaged northwest of Pakistan.

Millions more are known as Muhajirs, or Urdu-speakers who are descendants of Indian immigrants. Politically, the Muhajirs support the MQM, the dominant political group in Karachi.

The People's Party, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, is also a force in Karachi. But there are many competing factions — like the gang leaders who are also lionized on billboards.

Most of the recent violence has involved the Baloch and Muhajir communities.

Baloch Men Targeted

After one recent killing spree, five young Baloch men from the same neighborhood, Lyari, were buried on the same day. In the night hours spanning Aug. 15 and 16, all five were abducted and tortured, and after they were killed, their bodies shoved into gunnysacks.

One of them, Shahnawaz Baloch, was the father of baby triplets and was going out to buy his children new clothes for Eid when he was kidnapped, according to his father, Maula Baksh.

Baksh said that when he saw his son's body, it bore the marks of severe torture. His face was so disfigured that one side was unrecognizable. He says his son was tall and healthy, and the killers stuffed his legs into one gunnysack and his torso in another and stitched them together. They dumped his son's body on the side of the road near a graveyard.

Maula Baksh's son was not alone that night. He had piled onto a single motorcycle with his two best friends, Kamran and Saqib. Police say the bodies of all three men were discovered on a road in an area of town dominated by Muhajirs.

Kamran and Saqib's uncle, Mohammad Hanif, saw their bodies when an ambulance service brought them home. He said they were wrapped in simple white linen but were drenched in blood, and he sent a nephew to ask a mufti, an Islamic scholar, whether the bodies should be washed. The mufti ruled that the linens could be changed, but the bodies should not be washed because he said they were martyrs.

Two more youths, who were cousins, were killed with guns and hand drills.

Motives Not Clear

Relatives say the five who were slain said they did not belong to any political party, and worked in shops and small industries.

A report published in a leading Pakistan newspaper, Daily Jang, claimed that a Baloch gangster killed the five young men on suspicion that they had been spying for a rival gang.

The families of the dead men deny this, and have accused the MQM, the Muhajir political party that has long been accused of cultivating gangs to consolidate its political power.

However, President Zardari's People's Party has been seeking to counter the power of the MQM in Karachi, according to Moin-Ud Din Haider, a retired lieutenant general who served as a caretaker governor in Karachi in the late 1990s. "Every party wants to increase its influence on its political turf," he said. "And that is also a cause of friction."

Muhajirs Also Targeted

Muhajirs, too, have been victims. In a Muhajir area across town, parents grieved for their murdered son, Malik Irfan. The mother, Zareena Begum, said her son was decapitated.

"Our hearts are broken," she said, adding that during Eid, a time of celebration, her family felt only sorrow.

This Muhajir family was expert in Baloch embroidery and even opened a shop in an area many Muhajirs dare not go. But as tensions rose over the murders of the five young Baloch men, 28-year-old Irfan was a convenient target for those seeking revenge.

Malik Gulzar identified his son at the morgue.

"I didn't have enough courage to look into the gunnysack of my son's remains," he said. "But others I saw had their arms and legs chopped off. Even an animal is not killed in the way my son was killed."

Malik Gulzar does not wish to avenge his son's killing. He said he has lived among the Baloch for many years, and that "the majority are good; the criminals are very few."

Still, he lacks faith in the judicial system.

"If the murderers of a prime minister could not be arrested," he said in a reference to the 2007 killing of Benazir Bhutto, "then who would nab our children's killers?"

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Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

JULIE MCCARTHY: But ordinary citizens shuttered at home are suffering, says date merchant Mohammad Naeem Baloch. He says what ought to be a time of celebration - as the Eid holiday ends the month of Ramadan - is a time of anxiety.

MOHAMMED NAEEM BALOCH: (Through translator) Especially for the laborers and the working-class people, they have been crushed because of this violence. And there have been dead bodies from various houses. So, in such conditions, how would you celebrate Eid?

MCCARTHY: Sir, I wonder if you could tell us, what did you discover? What happened to your son?

MAULA BAKSH: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Kamran and Saqib's uncle, Mohammad Hanif, saw their bodies when an ambulance service brought them home.

MOHAMMAD HANIF: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Rival political parties are challenging the MQM's authority. Retired Lieutenant General Moin-Ud Din Haider - who once served as governor of the Sind province, the capital of which is Karachi - says the People's Party of President Zardari is alleged to have supported its own criminal mafia.

MOIN: And, you know, propping them up as a counterforce, counterweight to MQM. So, every party wants to increase its influence on its political turf, which sometimes become no-go areas for others, and that is also a cause of friction.


MCCARTHY: Across town, in an Urdu-speaking migrant area, a mother and father grieve for their murdered son, Malik Irfan. Irfan's mother, Zareena Begum, says her son's head was separated from his body.

ZAREENA BEGUM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Malik Gulzar identified his son at the morgue run by the Edhi Foundation, the city's largest charity.

MALIK GULZAR: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Yet Malik Gulzar does not wish to avenge his son's death. But neither does he have faith he'll find justice. Gulzar asks: If the murderers of a prime minister could not be arrested - a reference to the slain Benazir Bhutto - then who would nab our children's killers?

INSKEEP: A question put to NPR's Julie McCarthy in Karachi has she visited there. And Julie, I'd like to ask: What are police and the authorities doing during all these killings?

MCCARTHY: And the chief justice asked at one point why the police didn't know that torture chambers existed in the city. So there is this attempt being made to assign accountability and to try to stop this ethnic hostility. But there has to be political will. And you've got the PPP Party and the MQM Party denying any responsibility or connection to the targeted killings. And as long as that continues, the killing in Karachi will continue.

INSKEEP: Are the police affected by the same political divisions that seem to have poisoned every other part of the government?

MCCARTHY: Absolutely. I mean, the analysts who are closest to this say that many members of the police force have gotten their jobs not through merit, but through political patronage. If you don't have merit but have patronage, it means that criminals allied with particular parties are given cover and the police are told to release them, and they do. They follow orders.

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie McCarthy. Thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.