Karachi’s Turf Wars

Violence is a political tool in the city that never sleeps

Pakistani police forces block a street in Karachi, where violence between the ethnic Muhajir and the Pashtun-nationalist political parties has escalated in recent months. ASIF HASSAN / AFP PHOTO
01 August, 2011

THEY LOOKED LIKE CROWS perched along telephone wires strung through the hills on the outskirts of Orangi Town in Karachi. But in fact they were armed men from the Pashtun-nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), crouched over and looking through the crosshairs of their rifles at homes near the bottom of the hill in Qasba Colony.

Up to 100 people were killed from gunfire within four days when violence erupted in Karachi in early July. The murder of an ANP activist triggered the ever-simmering war between the ethnic Muhajir Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Karachi’s largest political party, and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa based ANP. The majority of the killings took place in Orangi Town, which has become a hotbed of violence when tensions rise—it is home to a large Muhajir community whose claim to the area has been threatened by the surge of Pashtun migrants settling in Karachi. Violence is used as a political tool throughout Karachi: both parties take advantage of, and sustain, ethnic tensions between the communities to exploit the public’s vote in exchange for security.

On the fourth day of violence I stood along a deserted road staring at the men on top of the hill, the air thick with the sound of gunshots in the distance. A Muhajir resident from the area approached me and whispered through his paan-stained teeth: “Do you want to see where they are shooting from?” I hesitated, as the only people not hiding in their homes at this time were likely to have a political affiliation. I put my fate in his hands as he took me to the top of the Zubeida Medical Center. “When you get to the landing on the second floor, duck and run to the next staircase,” he said as his eyes darted to the hilltops and back. It was becoming clear that he was taking me to his own hideout, which was a target of the rival group. When we reached the top, the hastily hidden guns and ammunition confirmed my suspicions. He handed me a pair of binoculars and instructed me and my cameraman to look through the holes: “Keep your eyes on the wall with the ‘ANP’ graffiti and you’ll see a man coming out and firing.” We spent 15 minutes capturing the best possible footage to satiate the public’s, and admittedly our own, voyeuristic urges.

Back on the deserted street, feeling heroic and accomplished, we sent the recording to our headquarters to be aired as soon as possible. We had managed to capture footage of gunmen to correspond with the percussion of gunshots echoing in the soundscape. But triumph quickly gave way to a sinking feeling, the one journalists get when they have seen only one side of the story.

As we moved towards the Qasba Mor intersection and the flags changed from the MQM’s green and white to the red of the ANP, I thought a balance was about to be struck in my reporting of the conflict. But just as we arrived at the intersection which divides the two communities, shots rang out and we ducked for cover behind our car. As I looked to my side, a policeman was crouched down beside me. I jeered at him, to which he responded: “No way am I firing back. We don’t have orders to and I only have four bullets.” We both laughed cynically.

Without trustworthy contacts and filled with fear, we decided not to go any further. As the sun began to set I realised that most of the media had never ventured into the labyrinthine, largely peaceful community on the hills. This omission has helped to shape the narrative that Muhajirs bore the brunt of the violence in those bloody four days, but of course it is only half of the truth. The combination of sophisticated logistics and a more media savvy Muhajir community meant that the ANP was largely invisible, and easily demonised.

As midnight approached and the body count grew, the horror of Qasba had reached the public’s living rooms and the pressure on the lackadaisical government increased. After four days without interference from security forces, the Rangers, paramilitary forces under government control, were sent in to evacuate families who had been stuck in their homes because of the conflict. Families came pouring out from the back of armored personnel carriers empty-handed, carrying with them only the ghastly tales of violence and loss. Many of their homes had been burnt, their life savings stolen, family members displaced in the violence and several of them had nowhere to go.

Once the Rangers moved into the hills, the gunfire died down by early morning, but what the government described as a “targeted action” was only focused on the violence coming from ANP areas. The MQM districts had been conveniently ignored—the armed men there could stash their weapons and return to their homes. Any detentions or arrests made by the Rangers were inconsequential, and once again the civilians in the region, because of their home addresses, carried the burden of consequence.

This is a familiar story for those in Karachi who have survived the violence in the 1990s and over the past few years. Turf wars between political parties are settled on the backs of a population taken hostage by heavily armed paramilitary forces. The privileged and the powerful are largely insulated from the violence. Body counts are merely numbers, not faces, as journalists along with the public get increasingly desensitised to the frequency of violence in the city. No one side can be absolved from guilt in these skirmishes, and the ill-equipped politicised police force is too scant to make an impact, even if they were reformed.

Land is priceless in this growing metropolis, but lives have become increasingly worthless.

Karachi, the “City of Lights” and the city that never sleeps, is in a fragile state of perpetual fear. While its most vulnerable residents rest their sleepless heads, the threat of another turf war weighs heavy on their future. And as they remain blanketed by dark political forces that exchange security for votes, the cycle continues.