Escalating political battle for control of Pakistan metropolis is conducted through drive-by shootings, stabbings and murders
One bleeding city, two grieving families. In a shabby apartment block in northern Karachi, Hina Muhammad and her sisters sat quietly in a darkened room, shaded from the light but not the pain.
Days earlier armed men whirled through the city’s Shershah market, a sprawling maze of scrap shops, shooting traders at their stalls. Among the 12 victims killed were Hina’s father, Umair, and two brothers, Umair and Zubair, all members of city’s Urdu-speaking mohajir community.
“They were everything to us,” she whispered, choking back tears. “Now we are lost.”
Across the city, on the other side of the ethnic divide, another woman was in mourning. Jan Bibi cradled a portrait of her son Rehman, a 30-year-old labourer who was snatched off the street in the hours following the Shershah attack.
Jan Bibi holds a photo of her 30-year-old son Rehman, who was abducted, tortured and killed in Karachi.
The motive was ethnic: the Shershah killers were Baloch, as was Rehman; his abductors were presumed mohajirs in a suspected revenge attack for the earlier shooting. They slashed him with knives, shot him and dumped his body outside the Radio Pakistan building.
“They cut him like this,” said his mother, her face hollow with grief, running a finger down her neck and across his face.
Karachi, Pakistan’s combustible seaside metropolis, has a history of vicious street violence. But since 16 October at least 80 people have died in drive-by shootings, stabbings and murders. By one count more than 1,100 people have died on the streets this year – more than in Taliban suicide bombs across Pakistan.
A bewildering array of causes lies behind the violence, the most obvious of which are crime and ethnicity. With up to 18 million inhabitants, Karachi holds a powerful allure for drug lords, weapons smugglers and extortionists. Neighbourhoods are sliced into turf zones whose borders are ruthlessly enforced.
The Shershah killings were carried out by Mullah Raju, a Baloch gangster seeking to increase his take of the market extortion racket. His enforcers showed no mercy. As motorcyle-riding gunmen swarmed between the stalls, traders scrambled to the rooftops seeking protection. One saw his neighbour plead for mercy. “They told him to open his mouth,” the trader said, too frightened to give his name. “Then they shot him through it.”
Behind the street brutality lies a struggle that extends into the hushed offices of the city’s most powerful men. Guns and politics are intimately connected in Karachi; police and city officials say the recent turmoil is part of a thinly-veiled battle for control of the city itself.
“This violence is not random, it’s fully controlled by the politicians,” said one senior police officer. “They can turn the tap on. And they can turn it off.”
The driving rivalry is between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which represents the mohajir majority, and the Awami National Party (ANP), which speaks for the ethnic Pashtun minority.
The MQM fears its domination of city politics is threatened by an influx of Pashtun migrants from the conflict-hit north-west.
The two parties accuse each other of orchestrating the violence; others say both are responsible.
The link between guns and politics is most striking at the parties’ headquarters, where suited men work in offices protected by steel doors, sandbags and burly, Kalashnikov-wielding guards.
At the ANP’s headquarters, local leader Shahi Syed, a burly Pashtun with a clipped moustache, sat before a giant poster with the slogan “Peace on Earth”. A closed-circuit television screen in the corner was trained on the front door.
The MQM was not a political party, he said: “They are a terrorist organisation”.
The rhetoric was equally sharp at the heavily-guarded MQM headquarters, known as Nine Zero, where senior leader Faisal Sabzwari said the influx of Pashtuns was leading to the “Talibanisation” of Karachi – a reference to the arrest of militant suspects among the city’s estimated four million Pashtuns.
“We must resist these extremists and exploiters of Karachi,” he said.
When the rhetoric turns violent – as it has every few months this year — it is the innocent who die. After Raza Haider, a senior MQM parliamentarian, was gunned down at a funeral last August, the city was convulsed by a week of killings that left more than 100 people dead.
The latest violence was triggered by the byelection for Haider’s seat on 16 October. The ANP boycotted the vote, the MQM won comfortably and 33 were dead by the time the polls closed.
The ruling Pakistan People’s Party, the third leg of Karachi politics, might be expected to clean up the mess. It controls the government of Sindh province and the police force. But it is also engaged in Kalashnikov politics.
In Lyari, the main PPP stronghold in Karachi, the party’s main backers are the Aman [peace] Committee, a self-styled community organisation widely considered a front for an armed group. Until last year the Aman Committee was led by Rehman Dakait, one of the city’s most notorious gangsters, who had ties with the PPP.
Dakait was photographed with Benazir Bhutto before her death in 2007 and, more recently, with the Sindh home minister, Zulfikar Ali Mirza. He died in a shootout with police last year; his replacement is seen little in public.
“We are Bhutto lovers,” said Peace Committee spokesman Shakeeb Baloch, proffering a business card emblazoned with Bhutto’s picture. He denied any links to organised crime. “Not a single person on our committee has cases against him,” he said.
The police, undermanned and over-politicised, are helpless to intervene. One senior officer said he could identify “80%” of the city’s contract killers, but “only 1% are brought to justice”.
There is intense political pressure on the senior officers, he said – “every arrest has to be approved” — while their juniors feared being gunned down in reprisal killings. Several complained of being targeted by MQM supporters. “We are stressed to the limit,” he said.
The imbroglio is further complicated by national politics. The MQM is a member of the PPP-led coalition government, and has repeatedly threatened to withdraw its support from President Asif Ali Zardari — a move that could bring about the collapse of his government.
Most Karachi residents stress that the ethnic tensions are political and do not percolate down to their lives. “We get on just fine, among ourselves,” said one Shershah trader.
As before, the violence has slowed to a trickle again. Last Monday two bodies wrapped in jute bags were dumped in a graveyard; on Tuesday a bullet-riddled corpse was discovered at a building site.
Few believe the worst is past. “This is just a pause,” said one police officer. “It won’t last long”.
Karachi’s combustible mix of ethnic politics, crime and violence has been shaped by its vicious political competition.
• The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) represents the mohajir community that accounts for more than half of Karachi’s 18 million inhabitants. The party is tightly controlled by its leader, Altaf Hussain, from exile in London.
• The rival Awami National Party (ANP) represents Pashtuns who mostly work on buses, as security guards and as manual labourers. The ANP claims there are 4 million Pashtuns in Karachi; they have just two seats in the provincial parliament.
• The smallest force is the ruling Pakistan People’s party, whose loyalists mainly come from the Sindhi and Baloch communities.