The sad truth about Karachi in 2012 was that whatever your religion, business affiliation, or political party, someone was willing to kill you for it.
The murder rate in Pakistan’s largest city and commercial hub hit an all time high last year. Over 2,500 people died in violent crimes in Karachi in 2012, a 50 percent increase over the year before.
Most of the deaths were attributable to sectarian killings and score settling. Shia Muslims took on the brunt of the violence. But Sunni Muslims were killed in reprisal attacks that added to the tally.
“It’s a good day in Karachi when only five or so people are killed because on average it would be eight to 10 a day,” says Zohra Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan which, among other things, tracks the violence in the city. In 2011, he says, “the violence was mostly ethnic. But now it has gone beyond that and there have been more deaths in recent months than earlier in .”
Yusuf says religious extremist groups – strong anti-Shia organizations – are to blame for the killing of nearly 200 Shia in Karachi last year alone. By way of comparison, in 2011 the Shia death toll was around 50.
Yusuf and police officials blame the spike in killings on the introduction of a new player on the scene. For the first time, local extremist groups are joining forces in a coordinated way with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP.
“The TTP used to come to Karachi for R and R or get treated in the hospitals here… or maybe for fundraising,” says Yusuf. “But now they’ve got a foothold and they want to entrench themselves and take over here.”
Chaudhry Aslam is a senior counter-terrorism official in the Crime Investigative Department of the Karachi Police. He’s been tracking the Taliban’s presence in his city and sees it as a problem.
“It’s not that there are a huge number of Taliban here,” he says. “But they are coming to meet with local people, to plan operations and in some cases – when we haven’t arrested them first – they have succeeded in attacking the city.”
Chaudhry has first-hand experience. The Pakistani Taliban have been targeting him for years. They have sent suicide bombers to his office and his home. And one nearly succeeded in killing Chaudhry last year.
“We’ve arrested sectarian killers and they have said they were linked to the Pakistani Taliban. They told us that they had united with the Taliban in jihad and there goal is nothing less than to destabilize the country.”
He says the Pakistani Taliban aren’t coming into Karachi in droves; in a way, that would be easier if they did. Instead, Chaudhry says they are arriving in small cells, fighters in groups of four or five, which makes them hard to track. What they have left in their wake, however, is a newfound deadly professionalism in local terrorist attacks.
Aktari Beygum, 65, is a mother of eight from Orangi Town in the northwest part of Karachi. She lost her 20-year-old son, Shahzad, when he went to protest against an anti-Shia march in their neighborhood.
Shahzad was wearing the traditional Shia dress: a long black tunic and a colorful piece of thread around his wrist. Beygum said she watched the events unfold from her doorstep.
“The protesters came and started shouting, ‘Shias are kaffirs, Shia are infidel,” she says. “And Shazad got so angry, he started pelting the protesters with stones.”
Then, she said, there was confusion. Shouts were exchanged. There was shoving. Then a van appeared from nowhere and pulled up near Shazhad. A second later, the men inside, Beygum says, opened fire.
“He fell into my arms just before he died,” she said. “He was shot because he was Shia. That’s the only reason he was killed that day.”
No one was arrested for the killing of Shahzad. A judge said it was a riot, so no one person could be held responsible.
‘I See My Sons’
In northern Karachi, in a mixed area known as Arafat Town, Gul Mohammed Khan, is sitting cross legged on the floor. He’s a big man with a white beard down to his chest and a perfectly pressed shalwar kameez, the pajama-like clothes worn by many Pakistanis. The sectarian wars in Pakistan have largely focused on Shia.
But Sunnis have been hard hit too.
In the past two years, Khan, who is Sunni, has lost four sons to Karachi’s sectarian violence. The latest killings happened in October, when two of his sons were working in the family’s storefront – one of Karachi’s ubiquitous oil change shops.
“In October, four guys came to say, ‘We’ve already killed two of your sons, now we are coming for the others.'”
Khan’s eyes filled with tears. Just two days after the warning, he says, men on motorcycles drove by the shop and sprayed it with bullets. His 25-year-old son Abul Wahed was killed on the spot.
His 30-year-old son Ismael was shot seven times and killed. Now, Khan says, he will be raising his grandchildren without their fathers.
“Your loved ones are your loved ones,” Khan says. “These were simple guys, living their lives in a simple, honest way. What can I say about the loss? When I look at my grandchildren, I see my sons.”
He has four sons left and he has sent them all away.
“We’ve afraid they are not safe here,” says Khan. “My sons were killed simply for being Sunni.”
Shopkeepers Under Siege
The sectarian part of the violence in Karachi is bad enough. But police officials say extortion and kidnapping have also boomed. So much so, business leaders will tell you extortion has touched nearly every small business owner in Karachi.
Recently, four remote control blasts went off within hours of each other in a shopping district of Karachi. The explosions destroyed storefronts and damaged a hotel. Two people were killed and 10 others hurt. Authorities linked the attacks to extortionists. Apparently some shopkeepers had refused to pay protection money and gangsters were sending a warning.
In response, traders in central Karachi shuttered their shops for two days, calling on the police to do more to battle the shakedowns.
Anjum Nisar, the former president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says there were literally thousands of cases of extortion in Karachi last year. The beginning of 2012 was particularly bad, he said.
Complaints about extortion began to come into his office in 2008, “but local authorities ignored the problem,” he said. “Now they can’t control it.”
Part of the problem is that many of the gangsters extorting money from local businessmen are part of the political establishment in Karachi. They represent the armed wings of Pakistan’s political parties.
Originally, he said, they were all about keeping order in the neighborhoods and getting out the vote. Then they began to solicit political contributions and eventually they demanded them alongside donations for protection.
Karachi is the engine of Pakistan’s economy, so trouble here is being felt all over the country. Nisar says the Chamber of Commerce estimates the lawlessness in Karachi is knocking between two and three percentage points off Pakistani’s overall GDP.
The Emotional Toll
What’s more, all the violence is creating a psychological change. People in Karachi are genuinely scared.
Baygum, the Shia woman whose son died at the rally, is a good example. She made her elder son quit his job because she said she couldn’t bear possibly losing him, too.
A lot of the targeted killings in Karachi are occurring in the mornings, she explained, when Shia are on their way to work. If her son isn’t out on the streets when that is happening, he’ll be safer, she says. Her one remaining son, Syed Abbas Hussein, says the constant tension wears on everyone.
“Why don’t they just kill us all now… all at once,” he says. “They should just get it over with, instead of killing us one by one.”