Karachi's murderous Genie forced back inside his bottle

Tim McGirk on the strongman trying to stem a city's rising tide of clan violence

Karachi - All day, the men of a Karachi slum known as the "Lines" had been filing past an empty swimming pool and made to parade under a high glass booth which, in better times, had been used by judges in diving contests.

The men in the queue moved spasmodically, as if knotted by fear. Sitting inside the glass booth these days is a different kind of judge, one of life or death. They are police informers. With bandannas drawn over their faces, the informers casually nodded towards a man in the queue, then armed police would pull the suspect out for interrogation. In Karachi, arrested "terrorists" have a habit of dying in police custody.

A gun battle had broken out two days before in the Lines between two rival extortion gangs.This put Karachi's law officers in a tricky position. The city has many villains - some would put the corrupt police force near the top of the list - and these two Lines gangs happened to be the authorities' occasional allies against yet another band of gunmen, those of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM).

But with bullets flying everywhere, the authorities had no choice but to send in the Rangers, an elite paramilitary force. They didn't find much: four suspects out of the 2,000 men and boys made to march in the identity parade.

Hidden inside a rubbish bin in one house, the Rangers found a cache of AK-47 semi-automatics, a few pistols, 15 empty bottles of Four Aces whisky and a hideous monkey mask of rubber and fur. One of the Rangers couldn't resist trying on the monkey mask and grunting. It was a precious find. "That mask belongs to a terrorist called the Djin-baba - the Genie. He wears it when he's extorting money or goes out to murder someone."

The Rangers were sent into Karachi by Pakistan's Interior Minister, General Naseerullah Babar. In Karachi, he is widely hated and feared, yet respected for his bravery. Unlike other ministers who shun the violence-ridden city, Gen Babar darts around trouble spots with a single car of armed guards. The relatives of one MQM worker, Asif Zahedi, killed on 24 September, swore that when they tried to reclaim his body from the police station, they saw Gen Babar posing for a photograph with his swagger-stick in one hand and his foot on the chest of the corpse, like some big game hunter.

It proved untrue, but such is the general's reputation that stories like this gain currency. When I met Gen Babar over tea, I asked him why such infamous tales were told of him. He didn't seem surprised. "I have better things to do than go around to see every dead body in Karachi. That's barbaric."

In his late sixties, the general is an urbane frontiersman, a much-decorated war hero from Pakistan's wild north-west. "You might say that I have a certain tough character role to play," he says. "But when I travel around Karachi, I don't see the terror in people's eyes any more. The marriage halls are full of people and music. And the militants are on the run. They have to move every couple of hours, and sleep in the mosques. Let them think what they want of me. If I can bring peace to Karachi, that's my best reward."

The worst troublemakers in Karachi, according to Gen Babar, are the MQM. An urban guerrilla army of more than 1,400, it draws support from Karachi's majority community of Mohajirs, the descendants of Indian Muslim refugees who have been elbowed out of top government jobs, university posts and elected office by the native Sindhis, Baluchis, Punjabis, and Pathans. In the violent slums which ring Karachi "like volcanoes", as one social worker described them, the MQM grew from a protective gang for Mohajirs into an organisation more powerful in the city than even the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. The MQM leader, Altaf Hussain, who is wanted on numerous murder and terrorism charges is living in exile in the United Kingdom.

"The top MQM leadership has either been caught or eliminated. They don't like to surrender, so most of them get killed in fire-fights," Gen Babar claimed. Nobody disputes his boast that he has helped to restore law in Karachi. So far this year, more than 1,400 people have died in Karachi's ethnic and sectarian strife, but the daily death toll has been falling. A stockbroker, Yasin Lakhani, said he overheard one trader telling another: "There were only three bodies found today, that means share prices are going up."

Gen Babar's tactics may have damaged the MQM, but in the process, he has unleashed other monsters: the security forces and a criminal element of Mohajirs known as the MQM (Haqiqi). One cotton mill owner, Farooq Sumar, has been in hiding after going public with proof that the Haqiqi had been extorting money from him. He calculates that extortion gangs such as Haqiqi rake off over pounds 1bn a year. "Every businessman and shopowner is forced to pay, and at least 30 per cent of this money is going to police officials and the government. We're turning Pakistan into Somalia," he claimed.

Another earner for police is to arrest people, charge them with terrorism or murder, and then demand bribes of anywhere between pounds 300 and pounds 2,000.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried