Peace-makers fail to halt Karachi's self-destruction

At the heart of a teeming slum, people were once encouraged to work together but now rival ethnic groups do battle, writes Tim McGirk in Orangi

Anwar Rashid was on the telephone trying to convince someone to visit his social welfare office in Orangi, a teeming slum of more than a million people at the epicentre of Karachi's ethnic strife. He wasn't doing a good job. Gunfire spat from a nearby bazaar.

"That noise you heard? Nothing. Just a few shots," Mr Rashid reassured his caller. "And they were quite distant - 200 yards away, at least." Needless to say, the visitor failed to keep his appointment in Orangi, and Mr Rashid, who has become acclimatised to bullets flying outside his doorstep, seemed genuinely surprised by that.

Earlier the same day, Mr Rashid had watched from his window as a convoy of 25 jeeps and armoured personnel carriers loaded with Rangers in full combat gear rumbled by. The Rangers, Pakistan's elite paramilitary force, were dispatched to reinforce a contingent that had already taken position along the ridgetop above Orangi. ''The Rangers know that if they come to Orangi in a smaller convoy, they won't come back alive," Mr Rashid said glumly.

Karachi's death toll is rising alarmingly: 800 were killed last year, while 900 have died in the past six months, with 130 murdered this week alone. Like every person in Karachi, Mr Rashid is distressed by the city's plunge towards self-destruction. But unlike most, Mr Rashid has tried to do something about it. As chairman of a social welfare programme known as the Orangi Pilot Project, he has spent years trying to remove the sting from the ethnic rivalries that exist among the Pathans, Punjabis, Baluchis and Mohajirs - the descendants of Indian Muslims who came to Pakistan after the 1947 Partition - who are all crammed into the Orangi slum.

Mr Rashid and his mentor, Aktar Hamid Khan, an old Sufi scholar who writes children's stories in his spare time, convinced many Orangi slum-dwellers that the "art of survival" depended on all ethnic communities pitching in together.

They dug sewers, hired teachers and nurses, planted trees and helped each other through a co-operative bank to build their tin shacks into real houses. Even though the project gave loans without collateral, its low record of defaults would be the envy of any British bank.

"We divide the defaulters into three categories: dishonest, incompetent and unfortunate," he explained. "These days, they are mostly the unfortunate ones. How can people work with so many bullets?" The "art of survival" means buying a gun. Ethnic communities that once planted neem trees together are digging war trenches and barricades against each other and the Rangers' armoured cars.

Rooftop snipers pick off mothers and small children; the pistol is being replaced by a rocket-propelled grenade; and even the Rangers are afraid to enter many Karachi neighbourhoods. Yesterday, the Mohajirs forced the city to shut down. Those shopkeepers who don't strike are visited by youths with automatic rifles and cellular telephones beeping in their pockets - calls from gang leaders saying which shop to hit next.

So what is happening to Karachi? The angriest people are the Mohajirs, who make up the majority of the city's 12 million inhabitants. Until the mid-Eighties, they were jostled out of jobs and power by the native Sindhis and the other Pakistani ethnic communities living in Karachi.

Then, after the 1985 riots, in which police failed to protect more than 120 Mohajirs from being killed by Pathans, the Mohajirs began arming themselves. Under Altaf Hussain, leader of the Mohajir Quami Movement, they became feared by some Pakistani politicians and courted by others. The former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was one who feared them; in 1992 he sent the army into Karachi to clean out MQM armed gangs.

Mr Hussain fled to exile in London, and the MQM seemed defeated. To split the MQM, the Pakistani army gave support to a breakaway Mohajir faction, the MQM (Haqiqi), said by many Karachi businessmen to comprise blackmailers and thieves. Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister, has compounded the mistakes of her rival, Mr Sharif. Instead of letting Mr Hussain return and holding municipal elections, which the MQM would win, she is using security forces, unsuccessfully, to try crushing the Mohajirs' party.

Inevitably, other ethnic communities are being swept up in the battle.

Tired of having their lorries burned by Mohajir gunmen, the Pathans and Baluchis are kidnapping and torturing to death Mohajirs who stray into their neighbourhoods.

As for Mr Khan - the storyteller and Islamic scholar who once brought peace to Orangi - he is in a US hospital with heart trouble. "I'm glad he's in America," Mr Rashid said. "I wouldn't want him to see what's happening to Karachi.''

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn