Bad times return to Karachi

KARACHI, Pakistan (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting) — Despite Karachi’s decades-old reputation as Pakistan’s most violent city, over the last year this urban economic hub has remained a haven from the bombings and violence reverberating through the rest of the country. But a flaring of ethnic clashes in recent weeks, exacerbated by a the arrival of thousands of refugees from the violence in northern Pakistan, has many worried that instability has returned to the streets of this massive port city on the shores of the Arabian Sea.

Karachi is a migrant city, home to more than 14 million people, drawn from all corners of Pakistan by the promise of economic opportunity.

It is members of two of these groups, Pashtuns from the north and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs — descendants of immigrants from India during partition — that have been engaging in violent skirmishes throughout the city in past weeks.

“We believe that military operations in northern areas are causing the Taliban to now divert attention to Karachi,” says Haider Abbas Rizvi, of MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement), a powerful political party associated with the city’s Mohajirs. “We believe that it is Taliban militants in these [Pashtun] areas encouraging Talibanization in Karachi and creating the violence.”

Reports say that the recent fighting sparked after an unidentified man shot three members of the MQM.

Karachi gained its reputation for unrest due to similar ethnic violence in the 1980s and 1990s, but renewed clashes have taken on ominous contemporary political undertones as Pashtun communities are suspected of harboring militants in their midst.

Reports of gun battles, arsons and the deaths of dozens of people (mostly Pashtuns) in the last week are keeping schools closed, traffic thin, heavily armed rangers patrolling the city and Karachites tense, especially in light of a planned general strike called by Pashtun leadership and scheduled for May 12.

"It's fear basically, elements of the political establishment in Karachi are frightening the population with threats of Talibanization," says Amir Hamza Marwat, member of the Pashtun Fikri Jirga, a Karachi-based organization concerned with the issue of refugees in the city. "They say every Pashtun in the city is a problem, that every Pashtun is a Taliban."

Mohammad Sher Ali Khan, a recent refugee from violence in Matta in the Swat Valley, an area now controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, says he and his family should be seen as victims of political violence and not as its perpetrators.

Khan, along with his wife and 13 children, fled fighting between Taliban militants and the Pakistani Army nine months ago and are now living off savings in the largely Pashtun neighborhood of Landhi located in a poor industrial suburb of Karachi.

Khan, 55, recalls the now abandoned orchards and livestock that his family left behind when increasing violence and a lack of available medical care for his ailing wife finally forced them out of their home — land he’s now sure has been destroyed by war.

“We had to leave to save all our lives. We assume it’s all gone, but we haven’t gotten any news of what’s happened,” he says quietly sitting in the crowded courtyard of his rented house under a line of laundry drying in the summer heat, “We think the cattle have probably been killed by bombs.”

Khan is just one of hundreds of thousands of refugees from fighting in the north of Pakistan; recent United Nations estimates put the number near 600,000 and recent floods of people escaping new fighting in the northwestern district of Dir are pushing those numbers even higher.

But these internally displaced people — many headed to cities where they have family or communities that they hope can help them weather this crisis — may not have found the shelter from political turmoil they seek.

Karachi police have reported that recent raids into Pashtun neighborhoods have led to the arrest of militants plotting to attack the city.

“We have to go together to the different areas of Karachi and appeal to the local people in the area and ask them to not go along with these militants” says Rizvi, referring to concerns that Pashtun communities in Karachi could provide camouflage for militants “they need to work with the police and the military today and give these people up.”

Khan says that Karachi — considered a city of opportunity for so many — has not welcomed his family with open arms, but fears they have nowhere else to go.

“We can’t go back home because of the violence, but here in Karachi they call us terrorists, so where will I go in the future?” he asks tugging on his gray beard and looking towards his sons. “That’s what troubles me the most, right now we’re managing, but being branded as terrorists, as Taliban, tortures me daily, especially knowing we can’t go back home.”

Sarah Stuteville, a journalist with the Common Language Project, traveled to Pakistan on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Pakistan:

News of Pakistan's doom greatly exaggerated

Caught in Pakistan's crossfire

The fate of the Kalasha

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