Karachi is one of the largest cities in the world, home to 17-million people, give or take a million. It is the economic engine of Pakistan, responsible for three-quarters of its economy. It is the bellwether for a precarious nation – as Karachi goes, so goes Pakistan, they like to say here.
It's also, according to a recent report from global human resources consulting firm Mercer, South Asia's lowest-ranking city for personal safety and the sixth most dangerous city in the world. It has had no elected government for more than 18 months, after the last one dissolved in bickering over electoral reform.
What it does have is at least a half-dozen powerful political forces vying to control it, each with an armed wing. And each, for reasons of their own, will on occasion turn those forces loose: More than 1,000 people have died in 2011 of gunshots, explosions or torture. Some of that killing is criminal, some is ethnic, some is political.
In Karachi, the three are all but inseparable.
In the eyes of the pessimists, Karachi is a harbinger of the hell that will be the third-world megalopolis, a city irreparably fractured on ethnic lines, where the urban promise of social mobility can't be met, and the "melting pot" weakening of ethnic loyalties never happens, because kinship networks have to provide services like security and education that the state can't.
But some of its denizens will tell you that there's hope for Karachi.
"The parties here are the ones that can negotiate an end to the violence – it sounds strange, but it's where you should be in a transition to democracy," says Haris Gazdar, an economist and one of the city's brightest young thinkers. "Is the glass half-full or half-empty? You can worry about people turning the violence on whenever they want to but I look at it the opposite way – it means they can turn it off whenever they want to."
'THIS ENTIRE CITY SUFFERS FROM SUBCLINICAL DEPRESSION AND POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS'
Dr. Haroon Ahmed is president of the Pakistan Association of Mental Health and one of the country's 425 psychiatrists. He treats wealthy patients in the city's leafy seaside south, and also runs a free clinic in a poor section of the city.
He says he has seen a steady deterioration in the mental health of Karachiites through his career. "The society is brutalized. Kids either do drugs or become religious extremists – fight or flight."
Most of the city's population exhibits the forgetfulness and irritability that characterizes chronic low-grade depression, he said; in communities without the language to talk about mental health, they describe perpetual "fever in the bones."
FOUR POWERS: A LOOK AT FOUR OF THE LEADING FACTIONS THAT DRIVE POLITICS -- AND VIOLENCE -- IN KARACHI
Pakistan People's Party
The PPP clearly hopes that if democracy takes root, electoral politics will help to make up for its comparative lack of military muscle and smaller share of the criminal pie.
"There is a climate of fear all around and there are prejudices – they eat up the capacity to think rationally. So if a Pashtun dies, that is okay for a Muhajir and if a Muhajir dies that is okay for a Pashtun," says Taj Haider, a former senator with the party and its secretary-general in the province of Sindh. He works all day with a giant portrait of slain president Benazir Bhutto propped on his desk, but he's oddly optimistic anyway.
"In a democratic setup the [gangs]have no option but to participate. Electronic voting is coming – you can't occupy polling stations, you need to go to the public and win hearts: they will have to transform themselves."
Muttahida Qaumi Movement
The MQM considers itself the natural ruling party of Karachi – and many observers believe the outbreaks of violence in the city over the last six months stem from the party's sense that it is losing its demographic edge, that it unleashed its foot soldiers in a bid to remind the city of what it is capable.
The MQM represents the "Muhajirs", the Urdu-speaking group who migrated from India at partition and are perhaps half the population of the city – but new Pashtun, Baloch and Sindhi migrants pour in all the time, the impoverished and landless dispossessed drawn by the possibilities of the city.
The MQM political wing is run by its authoritarian founder, Altaf Hussain, who lives in exile in the UK; the party is secular and bills itself as the agent of the middle class, working against feudalism. The armed wing is estimated by security agencies to be 10,000 full-time fighters, and another 25,000 in reserve.
Raza Haroon, a suave, smooth-talking provincial cabinet minister and member of the central coordinating committee, says in one breath that the MQM has no conflict with any other ethnic group. In the next, he insists others are "not true Karachiites" because they send migrants who leave family back in the villages and don't have graveyards in the city.
At the heavily fortified, block-long headquarters with the action-movie name of "Nine-Zero," Mr. Haroon ushers a visitor to a hushed, red-carpeted shrine. Rolling bulletin boards stacked five deep are covered with gruesome pictures of the vacant, staring faces of dead men whom Mr. Haroon says are MQM martyrs, killed at the hands of other ethnic groups because they were working to advance the party's secular agenda – or just because they were Muhajir.
"When someone's brother is killed in this manner and his head is cut off and they torture him first, and you say, 'Be calm,' I don't think he will."
Awami National Party
Mohammed Ayaz, 18, set out for work at the cardboard factory on July 4. His older brother Amin Zaid had gone ahead to grab breakfast on the way; when Mr. Ayaz descended the hilltop alley from the three-room house he shares with 16 family members, he found his brother shot and writhing in the street.
He ran out to get him, and was shot himself. "I had heard shooting but you still have to go to work, you still have to make a living. It had been going on for days."
Neighbours alerted their father, Shahaz Haider, who got both boys into a taxi and took them nearly an hour across town to a public hospital, even though there is another one near their home. That one is staffed by Muhajirs, Mr. Ayaz explained: "If we got there alive they would kill us."
This neighbourhood is home mostly to Pashtuns, such as the Ayaz family – the father came from the tribal areas in the north of Pakistan 35 years ago, seeking work in the city. Most residents support the Awami National Party, or at least that's the assumption – so when the MQM wants to make trouble, Mr. Ayaz said, they simply post snipers on rooftops higher up, in Muhajir territory, and open fire.
Pashtuns are now at least a quarter of the city, and the ANP wants political power; it has already wrested control of the transport mafia, and fields a militia to rival the size of the MQM's, which also shoots and abducts and tortures civilians from other ethnic groups as proxies for whichever party it's feuding with.
Amin Zaid has recovered from his wounds, but Mohammed lost his leg, and sits morosely in the alley, tended to by toddlers; he says he will never work again. Now the family has lost one of the three salaries of $200 a month that kept them all going. "This is not a fight about us and them, it's about government and politics," the elder Mr. Ayaz said. "But we have to live in the middle of it."
Many Islamist organizations are staking a claim to power in Karachi. The Jamaat-i-Islami ('the Islamic Party' in Arabic) is the largest religious political party in the country and was the dominant political force in the city until the MQM edged it out in the 1990s. While it ostensibly wishes to establish an Islamic state in Pakistan, its operatives are heavily involved in electoral politics and social relief works in religious, usually poor, communities.
But after the Pakistani military launched an offensive against Islamist militants in the country's tribal areas and the Swat Valley in 2009, those militants have been making their way to the vast city, a much more convenient hideout.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban, the organization's Pakistani wing, is believed to have a growing role in the trade of drugs, weapons and human trafficking, which it uses to fund its other activities.
In May, the Taliban laid siege to a key naval base in the city in a brazen attack that left 10 people dead, humiliated the military, and suggested the Islamist group might have a stronger presence in Karachi than the government thought. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the Assembly of Islamic Clergy, a hard-line Deobandi party, is here, with a network of slum madrassas – the religious schools that have been accused of indoctrinating Pakistani youth. It's not clear what relationship any of these groups have with al-Qaeda, which security services say has been behind several brutal bombings in the city this year.