Page last updated at 01:11 GMT, Saturday, 16 January 2010

Violence haunts Karachi's streets

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Karachi

The Karachi district of Orangi
The people of Orangi deny that it is a hotbed of militancy

Fears are growing that bloodshed and brutality could return to the Pakistani city of Karachi, which was blighted by violence throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The concern is that the Taliban are increasing their influence in the city and establishing a presence outside their traditional stronghold in the north-west.

If that is indeed the case, it will have dire implications for a government and military already struggling to contain militancy in the north.

It is not hard to find evidence of the Taliban in Pakistan's commercial capital and only port.

Taliban backbone

"Yes, you will find the Taliban here," says Imran Afridi, a young Pashtun local leader.

Imran Afridi
The MQM's rhetoric has labelled everyone here a Taliban
Imran Afridi

He is speaking as he guides me through the narrow streets of Orangi.

He says that while everyone in the neighbourhood is Pashtun - the ethnic group which forms the backbone of the Taliban insurgency - not everyone is a militant.

With nearly 8 million people, Orangi is home to the majority of Karachi's working class.

But it also has a reputation as a breeding ground for sectarian and ethnic discord.

It was the main battleground between the Pashtun and Mohajir communities in the 1980s. The Mohajirs are the descendants of Urdu-speaking migrants who moved to Pakistan from India at the time of partition.

There have always been tensions between Karachi's different ethnic communities, but after a period of relative calm, those tensions have re-emerged with a vengeance.

The party that represents most Mohajirs - the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) - says that the city is becoming increasingly "Talibanised" because of the increased migration of Pashtuns from the conflict-ridden north.

The government initially denied this.

But now they too concede that there is an increasing Taliban presence in the city.

Intelligence officials say both al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders sought refuge in Karachi after fleeing the army operation in northern Pakistan.

In fact, recent media reports have claimed that both Osama Bin Laden and overall Taliban leader Mullah Omar are now hiding in the metropolis.

At the moment, there is no evidence to support these claims.

But the fact remains that the arrest of Taliban suspects remains at an all-time high.

The main cause is deprivation - there are no sanitation or education facilities here
School teacher Asim

Police operations against the militants have intensified since the bombing of a Shia Muslim religious procession on 28 December in which at least 43 people died and dozens more were injured.

"My family and I were sitting at a roadside stall when the blast took place," says Yasmeen Syed, a local school teacher.

Mrs Syed was attending the procession along with her family and suffered severe injuries.

"I felt the explosion before I heard it. I was thrown off my feet but I did not lose consciousness.

"People were lying all around - with missing limbs."

Her worst fears were later confirmed when both her brother and her sister-in-law's charred bodies were discovered.

"Our children have been telling me for years, let's leave this country," she said.

"How many [more] people can we sacrifice?"


In the aftermath of the blast, fingers were first pointed at Taliban militants.

A Pakistani paramilitary soldier in Karachi
Karachi has seen much violence recently

There was even a claim of responsibility from a leading militant commander.

While this was later denied by the "official" Taliban spokesman, they and their jihadi cohorts remain the main suspects.

"No one heeded our warnings over the last three years," says Mustafa Kamal, Karachi's young mayor who belongs to the MQM.

"While most Pashtuns are law-abiding citizens, militants are using their identity to blend in."

A local police official agrees. He confirms that the arrest of Taliban militants is at an all-time high.

"Most of them are mid-level commanders from Swat or Waziristan," he said.

"Almost all of them have been arrested before launching an attack, although a few have been close calls."

One of these was in January when police said eight militants were killed and several others injured while trying to mix explosives in a house.

One of them was later arrested, when doctors treating him alerted the police.

"He told us they were planning to attack the nearby police training academy," an investigator told the BBC.

The men were a mixture of Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a militant group close to al-Qaeda, police said.

The incident happened in Baldia town, close to Orangi. It - along with Ittehad and Sohrab Goth towns - form a ring around inner Karachi.

It is these areas which are said to be the new havens for the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

But locals residents deny this, while conceding that some militants may have filtered in.

They point out that the majority of Pashtuns have been living here peacefully since partition.

"The MQM's rhetoric has labelled everyone here a Taliban," says Imran Afridi.

"You can see yourself how much Talibanisation is here," he says, pointing to a Western-style cable TV channel which is running in a nearby restaurant.

But locals also warn that if measures are not taken, extremism could grow here exponentially.

"The main cause is deprivation - there are no sanitation or education facilities here," says Asim, a local school teacher.

"Look at those children playing on the rubbish heap - they should be in school at this time.

"But the local school building is being used by a political party as an office."

Asim's description is not inaccurate. There are miles of narrow streets with open or broken manholes, no proper electricity and little water. There is not even a proper hospital within 10km (six miles).

"If the Taliban come here and brainwash young people by promising paradise, who can blame them for being enticed by their message?"

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