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A paramilitary soldier walks past the site of a suicide bomb attack in Karachi on Sept. 19, 2011. (Athar Hussain / Reuters/Athar Hussain / Reuters)
A paramilitary soldier walks past the site of a suicide bomb attack in Karachi on Sept. 19, 2011. (Athar Hussain / Reuters/Athar Hussain / Reuters)

Karachi: bellwether for Pakistan, a country on the brink Add to ...

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.”

The Islamists

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.

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