The Karachi I remember

Al Jazeera correspondent Kamal Hyder laments the recent violence in Pakistan’s largest city, which is wracked by political and criminal rivalries.

When Pakistan became an independent state in 1947, its first capital city was Karachi. It was the first port of call for international shipping in an age when aviation was used by few.

Over the years, it attracted both the educated elite and workers in search of employment. Many decided to make it their home. When Pakistan split from India, a great number of Muslims migrating to the new country came to Karachi for the same reason.  

The city soon became an epitome of unity. Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus intermingled and lived side by side. I remember, during my days in school, no one ever asked anyone who they were, and everyone took pride in the fact that they were all patriotic Pakistanis.  

Sadly, the past is another country. After years of political upheaval, the callous attitude of a failing political leadership and a growing polarisation deliberately nurtured by narrow-minded ethnic and sectarian groups, have succeeded in tearing the fabric of coexistence and pitting people against each other. What you see now is the bitter fruit of years of political neglect.

In many ways, the city bears resemblance to Rio de Janeiro, where the poor are destined to live in shanty towns or slums, and where the long arm of security forces seldom reaches.

Here, land grabbers and drug mafias find refugee in the midst of the poor, many of them migrants from far-flung corners of Pakistan. The battlefield for the turf wars is invariably the slums, although it sometimes boils over to the more affluent parts of the city, the places with neon signs, billboards for branded labels, fast food chains, five-star hotels and shopping malls.

Those who are insulated from the rough realities of everyday life remain oblivious to the troubles of their poor neighbours, whose streets which are now becoming the political battleground for the rich and famous political dons from various political parties, each with their own brand of doing business.

You will not find the party banners in the rich parts of town, but you will find rich politicians in the troubled neighbourhoods supporting the same thugs who have become a nightmare for the poor but proud residents.

I visited one such slum built on occupied land and then sold to poor people in search of a cheap abode. Katti Pahari, or Broken Mountain, may not be a large but it juts out of the flat landscape and has become a political fault line.

The major parties have distributed weapons to their supporters, who use them to settle political scores in which the main victims are ordinary people.

One wise citizen told me it does not matter who you are, both parties will say their workers or supporters were killed. He cautioned that not every Pashtun killed is from the Awami National Party, and not every Urdu speaker a supporter of the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement, or MQM.

In a recent development, the various local party heads, accompanied by journalists, made a show of removing their flags from the streets. But no sooner had the delegations gone than the flags were up and fluttering once again. As one old man said, gone are the days when we took pride in one banner.

More than 100 people lost their lives in just five days this month. It shook even a city like Karachi, accustomed to a high number of killings. The people who fled were not wearing the party labels, and they were not carrying iPods, but rather their most precious possession: their children.

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