Karachi `saint' flees to Britain, fearing civil war

Tim McGirk
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:55

In the midst of Karachi's many sectarian and ethnic gun battles, Abdul Sattar Edhi, an old man in grimy clothes and with a steely, shovel-shaped beard, was always there.

Dodging bullets in the crossfire of a shoot-out between rival gangs, Mr Edhi would drag the injured into one of his battered ambulances and speed off to Karachi's hospitals.

Finally, the day came when Mr Edhi, 63, nicknamed the Patron Saint of Karachi, was forced to flee his city. He was receiving death-threats. Anwer Kazmi, his helper, said: "He was afraid that if someone shot him, it might lead to civil war in the city. That's why he left."

On 9 December Mr Edhi flew to Britain and his friends are hiding him in a farmhouse somewhere in the English countryside. They fear that even in Britain, with its large Asian communities, assassins could hunt Mr Edhi down.

Mr Edhi is in danger for refusing to take sides in Karachi's suicidal five-way conflict. Sunnis and Shias are throwing bombs into each other's mosques and gunning down spiritual leaders, while Indian Muslim refugees known as Mohajirs are waging an ethnicconflict against the native Sindhis, as well as against the other immigrants in this teeming seaport of 10 million people. Mr Edhi, a philanthropist who took it upon himself to collect the corpses off Karachi's streets, clean them and give them a decentburial, became a one-man welfare system. Though he lived like a pauper, he and his volunteers ran 550 ambulances, 22 clinics, orphanages, mental asylums and homes for the handicapped. Because he was so revered, party bosses sought Mr Edhi's patronage. They were always rebuffed.

The departure of one of Karachi's few redeeming figures left many people there in despair. Sherry Rehman, editor of the weekly Herald, whose next cover is aptly entitled ``Karachi's Descent Into Hell'', said: "It was a dramatic exit. He left people gasping in shock." His flight also confirmed many people's worst fears: that nobody, even in Karachi's poshest suburbs, was safe. Since the army pulled out of Karachi on 30 November, up to 30 killings a day occur. Scholars, film actors, intellect u als, clergymen and journalists have been shot."I've had anonymous phone calls telling me that my grave was being dug, too," Ms Rehman said.

Most of the victims are innocent bystanders, soup vendors, betel-leaf sellers or students picked off at random by snipers. At a funeral procession through Karachi yesterday, three people were killed and 12 were injured when shots were exchanged between police and mourners. That such violence should explode at a funeral was not surprising: hundreds of the mourners were carrying guns.

So far, the government of Benazir Bhutto has failed to respond to the bloodshed in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and where the Bhutto clan keeps several residences. Ms Bhutto is under pressure to send in the army, even though 29 months of martial law,which ended last month, left hundreds dead and only managed temporarily to douse the flames of ethnic and sectarian hatred. For Ms Bhutto to do so, however, would be an admission of failure.

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