Street Crime Karachi Essays

Shortly after 11pm on 8 June 2014, 10 men dressed in military uniforms split into two groups outside the Jinnah International airport in Karachi. Armed with automatic weapons, hand grenades and rocket‑launchers, they entered the complex, one group going over a perimeter wall and the other through an entrance generally reserved for top government officials and foreign dignitaries. The assault was tightly planned, and the men were prepared for a long siege. Some wore suicide vests under their uniforms.

A few minutes later, Zille Hyder, a crime reporter for Geo, then Pakistan’s most popular news channel, heard an explosion from his home, around 10km away from the airport. Hyder had recently been told by a police contact that the intelligence services were anticipating an attack on the airport, so he called the Geo office to report the disturbance. His colleagues on the news desk immediately ran a ticker along the bottom of the screen announcing an explosion at the airport. It was Hyder’s evening off, but he got into his car and raced to Jinnah International.

Karachi vice: inside the city torn apart by killings, extortion and terrorism - Podcast

After 12 years of reporting, Hyder has become one of Karachi’s most respected TV journalists but the job has swallowed his life whole. He is on a Taliban hitlist; his friends are the police and criminals who feed him his stories; his phone is filled with hastily snapped crime scene photos of dead bodies.

When Hyder arrived at the airport, around 20 minutes after he heard the blast, police had yet to cordon off the area and he quickly slipped inside. A violent battle was under way, as troops from the Airport Security Force exchanged fire with the militants. Inside, staff and passengers hid anywhere they could. Outside, on the runway, hundreds of terrified passengers were trapped on grounded planes. By around 1am hundreds more police and soldiers had arrived at the scene and sealed the airport complex, locking Hyder inside and the other journalists out.

As the battle continued, television camera crews broadcast footage of smoke plumes rising from what looked like the main runway. Anchors speculated about what was happening inside. Journalists and photographers vied for information, calling police contacts and gleaning what they could about the battle in progress. Hyder, who claims that he was the only reporter inside the airport, used his phone to record videos and to text colleagues with information.

This proved useful not just to viewers at home. As the battle was unfolding, Pakistan’s relentlessly competitive media did not hesitate to report everything as it happened. News tickers revealed which gates the army was entering from, where police were situated, and which areas were being cordoned off. Inside the airport, the militants were keeping up with the TV updates and adjusting their positions accordingly. “I accept this is the wrong thing,” Hyder said later, with a guilty laugh. “But what can I do? It’s my work.”

Around 4am, an hour before dawn, the fighting stopped. Security forces had shot dead eight of the 10 militants; the last two killed themselves by detonating their suicide vests. Four airline employees had been killed, as well as 14 security forces. The death toll rose a few days later when the corpses of seven people were discovered inside the airport’s cold storage facility, frozen to death while they hid. The Pakistani branch of the Taliban, the Sunni-extremist TTP, claimed responsibility for the attack.

In the past decade and a half, terror attacks have become just another element of a crime wave in Karachithat is virtually an insurgency. In May, gunmen entered a bus and shot dead 46 Ismaili Shia Muslims; in 2011, 20 militants stormed a naval base; bombings of religious parades are so frequent that on public holidays the city is placed on high alert and mobile phone networks are shut down. When Pakistan gained independence in 1947, Karachi was a cosmopolitan coastal city of 500,000 people, that carried the hopes of this new nation. Sixty years on, it is one of the most violent places in the world.

For the 23 million people who live there, crime has become a central part of life, as commonplace as traffic jams and power cuts. In 2013, at least 2,700 people were murdered, more than in any other city in the world. The wealthy have armed guards at their homes; even bakeries in the elite districts have metal detectors and weary security guards sitting outside, rifles slung across their shoulders. The Express Tribune, an English-language newspaper, publishes a crime map every day in its Karachi edition, under such headlines as “Shootings and raids” or “Mishaps and bodies found”.

It is not just the high rate of crime that marks Karachi out, but the entanglement of crime with the very highest echelons of politics: the gangsters who stand for parliament, the politicians who sanction street killings. Karachi’s criminal syndicates do not limit themselves to slums. The bhatta (extortion) economy, is worth billions of rupees. A few years ago, I visited a poor district in the east of the city, and met a local youth leader who told me that most families spent at least a third of their income on water sold from tanks; the “water mafia” siphoned off the mains supply and charged outrageous rates to sell it back to people. The “transport mafia” has repeatedly stymied attempts to build a proper public transportation system. At some point, most citizens have to do business with criminals – to buy a house, start a business, get running water, take a bus.

Most citizens have to do business with criminals – to buy a house, start a business, get running water, take a bus

In recent years, militant groups have taken advantage of the city’s lawlessness to establish a foothold, effectively taking control of certain areas. Now, suicide bombings and violent attacks on state targets have been added to the regular gun battles between rival criminal gangs and the steady stream of targeted killings of political party activists.

It falls to Hyder and the city’s crime reporters to make sense of the throbbing disorder of Karachi. The fact that crime has infiltrated every aspect of life there puts them in the curious position of being minor celebrities; Hyder regularly receives fan mail and is often recognised in public. The Karachi airport attack shows that reporters can sometimes go overboard – but deciphering the shifts in ethnic conflict and gangland alliances is a vital job. The fate of Pakistan depends on Karachi, the megalopolis that provides a quarter of the nation’s GDP, and the fate of Karachi will be decided by the power struggles between its gangsters, terrorists, police and political groups.

* * *

Where Hyder’s right forearm meets his wrist, there is a bullet. Within minutes of my first meeting with him this spring, he pointed it out to me. “It’s a very exciting job,” he laughed, as he traced the outline of a small, hard bulge lodged just under the skin.

Hyder acquired the bullet three years ago, while filming a night-time shootout between two militant groups in Sohrab Goth, a Taliban stronghold in northern Karachi. He was caught in the crossfire, and was rushed to hospital, where a surgeon managed to remove three of the four bullets lodged in his arm. His TV channel Geo made the event into a cause celebre, putting up huge posters bearing Hyder’s image. “While chaos, bullets, and explosions cause most people to flee, Geo’s field staff is fearless and brave,” read the caption. “Taking their life in their hands, they fulfil their duty.”

In recent years, much of Hyder’s reporting has focused on the Karachi police. Overstretched and underfunded, the force has just 30,000 officers. (London’s Metropolitan police employs nearly 50,000 for a population of 8.3 million.) Since 2013, the force has been engaged in an effort to bring the city under control. Announcing the mission, known simply as the Karachi operation, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters that the police and the Pakistan Rangers – a paramilitary force under the direct control of the Ministry of the Interior – would focus on the “four heinous crimes of target-killing, kidnapping, extortion and terrorism”. The result has been a dramatic increase in extrajudicial killings or “encounters” as they are euphemistically known. Since the operation began, 800 people have been killed by police. Officers, who generally claim they are acting in self-defence, are rarely held to account.

Hyder says that he has covered more than 3,000 police “encounters” over the years. Despite the questionable legality of these raids, police often invite journalists along, eager to show a disillusioned public that they are at least doing something. It is a beat that has made Hyder a target for terrorists. In November 2014, he was told by a police contact that his name was on a hitlist drawn up by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat (TTS), an offshoot of the main terror group in the country. The TTS believes that Hyder’s reporting on police killings of militants glorifies the force. It also considers Hyder a heretic: like 20% of Pakistan’s population, he is Shia.

Hyder is a small man, very thin, with hooded eyes and a sharp gaze. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the threats to his life, there is something evasive about him. He is always reaching for one of his two phones, lighting a cigarette, surveying his surroundings, leaning sideways as if trying to avoid being seen. If you ask a basic question, like his age, he will give three different answers on three different days. (He told me 32, 33, and 38 – but gave his date of birth as 1974, which would make him 41.) Yet he is obsessed with the idea of reporting the truth, regardless of who it upsets. Despite his cagey manner, his Facebook page is full of selfies; at press conferences, at protests, sitting in his office, out for dinner.

“It’s life, not just a job,” he told me one evening, flicking through WhatsApp messages from police officers. Later that night, we went for a drive. A rolled up prayer mat sat under the windscreen of Hyder’s car and black netting blocked out the side windows. Since being placed on the hit-list, Hyder is wary of attracting unwanted attention. As we drove through the city, his phones rang constantly. One police officer texted to say that a big shipment of heroin from Balochistan had been intercepted, another to say that two gangsters had been arrested and a cache of weapons seized in a separate raid.

Hyder stopped the car at Sea View, one of Karachi’s beaches. A group of teenagers behind us were roasting corn over a barrow. Small children ran up and down the side of the beach. In this anonymous space, Hyder seemed to relax.

“You see the lights at sea? It’s ships and boats,” said Hyder. “If you travel six hours from here, you reach Bombay. In 2008, the men who attacked the Taj hotel took the boat from Karachi.” To Hyder, the city is a living tapestry of crime past and present; even a serene ocean view has a thread of violence running through it.

* * *

On 8 August 1979, a young student activist named Altaf Hussain stood before a rally at the tomb of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and set fire to the country’s flag. Following decades of ethnic tension, it was an act that marked a new phase in the inter-ethnic violence that would eventually come to define Karachi. The party Hussain went on to form, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), represented Mohajirs, Urdu-speaking Muslims who came to Pakistan from India during partition. For years, the Mohajirs had clashed with the local Sindhi population, who resented the fact that Mohajirs – who tended to be educated, and already spoke Urdu, the new lingua franca – easily slotted into government jobs. Now, with the creation of the MQM, the violence evolved from spontaneous riots into something altogether more organised.

In the 1980s, at the same time that the MQM was emerging as a political force, millions of Pashtun refugees from Soviet-occupied Afghanistan arrived in Karachi. Sindhis, Pashtuns and Mohajirs fought over land, influence, and political power. Street warfare broke out in parts of the city.Combatants were equipped with Kalashnikovs and sometimes rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. In 1992, the army responded with Operation Clean Up, in which thousands of people were killed or went missing. It is generally regarded as the bloodiest period in the city’s history.

Most political parties – including the main parties of national government – maintain an armed wing in Karachi. Often, they operate in conjunction with one of the city’s many criminal syndicates. The MQM has long had a militant wing that is said to torture and assassinate opponents. Its trademark is putting corpses – sometimes those of journalists – in body bags (or bori) and then dumping them in vacant properties or drains, ready to be found by members of the public. In a political meeting in London captured on video in 2009, Hussain – who denies that his party is violent – suggested that his political opponents in Pakistan should get themselves measured for body bags.

In order to get closer to the stories he is reporting, Hyder has built close relationships with prominent gangsters. Lyari is Karachi’s biggest slum, a dusty and crime-ridden area that has been the centre of an intermittent gang war for over a decade. Until recently, Lyari’s kingpin was a self-styled gentleman gangster named Uzair Baloch, who regularly hosted international journalists at his Scarface-style villa. Over the last few years, he has sought access to mainstream politics, plastering huge posters of himself around Lyari.

Some years ago, Baloch tried to bribe Hyder to abandon a story about one of his associates. Hyder politely refused, and the two soon became friends. Baloch allowed Hyder safe access to Lyari. For reporters unwilling to befriend these criminal elements – and some refuse to, on principle – it was inaccessible. “Lyari is Karachi’s most dangerous place, but it’s my favourite place because Uzair is my very best friend,” Hyder told me. (He is given to superlatives.)

In December 2014, the two men went on holiday to Dubai together. It was partly a working trip – Baloch had promised Hyder news – but partly for leisure. Hyder says that during the trip Baloch, aware that his political fortunes were turning, told him that he intended to be arrested in Dubai.

“He doesn’t want to be in jail in Pakistan because he will be killed in a fake encounter,” Hyder told me. “In Dubai he can stay alive.”

Hyder flew back to Karachi, and within days, Baloch was arrested in Dubai. From jail, a few months later, Baloch reportedly confessed to carrying out assassinations on behalf of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). It was a spectacular turnaround in fortunes for a man who was once untouchable.

Now that Baloch is no longer at large, Hyder relies on lower‑ranking gangsters for his stories. Many have gone to ground because of the current police operation in Karachi. Instead of fleeing to other parts of the country, well-connected criminals hide out in the wealthy districts of Defence and Clifton, where high walls and wide avenues provide cover. The city is vast: gun battles might consume one area while life goes on as normal elsewhere.

* * *

Hyder grew up in the middle-class area of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, where he lived with his parents and four sisters. He studied English at the University of Karachi. After graduating, he had a brief and unsuccessful stint running a hairdressing salon with a friend. Then he dedicated his time to seeking out a media job and, in 2003, was hired by Geo TV to work on the entertainment desk. On the side, he began to work as a researcher on a programme called National Investigation Cell that reconstructed crimes. “I’d go to the locations and follow up thoroughly even in no-go areas,” Hyder said. “I didn’t feel at all afraid of going to dangerous spots to discover more. So my bosses thought, ‘OK, he should be in the news.’ My dreams came true. God always fulfils my dreams.”

The Geo TV office is situated in the heart of Karachi’s business district, on Chundrigar Road. It is set back from the street by a series of roadblocks. As is standard at media offices in Pakistan, armed security guards and metal detectors obstruct the entrance.

One afternoon, I took a rickety wood-panelled lift to the news desk on the fifth floor. Marooned on an island of empty desks – journalists start work late in Pakistan – was Talha Hashmi, senior reporter at Geo and a long-time colleague of Hyder’s. An amiable man with a neatly trimmed beard, he was busy receiving news updates via WhatsApp or telephone, making calls to check facts, and writing news tickers. Police, terrorists, and even gang leaders are all keen to make it onto the tickers. In 2003, when Lyari was consumed by a brutal turf war, gangsters from each side would call contacts at TV stations to get them to broadcast tickers about the murder of prominent opponents. Senior police officer Rao Anwar, the man in charge of the operation to bring Karachi under control, is also a regular fixture. Every crime reporter I met had a wry laugh about Anwar’s eagerness to be personally credited as the killer of suspected militants.

Geo was established in 2002, after the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf allowed the licensing of private broadcasters. Until then, there was only one news channel, the state-run PTV. Now, there are scores. For most of the last decade, Geo has been the most popular. There is no shortage of news in Karachi but, on Geo, any lull is considered unacceptable. Anchors hype up the smallest developments and the screen frenetically cuts to different crime scenes. (When I lived in Karachi in 2012, I once saw a ticker on Geo announcing an explosion near my house. I cancelled my evening plans. Later, it transpired that the “explosion” was a car engine backfiring.) Flick to any of Pakistan’s other news channels, and the experience is much the same. They are competing on the same ground: who can be fastest and most exciting. “It’s a rat-race,” said Hashmi. “Now there are so many channels, and in the craze to be the fastest, you have to compromise.”

The lives of Karachi’s journalists have been at risk for years, but terrorist groups – which became much more active in the years following September 11 – added a violent new element. Many reporters avoid the subject of terrorism altogether, while others use neutral terminology: “banned organisations” for groups and “militants” or “activists” for individuals. Hyder reports on terrorism, as his place on the TTS hitlist shows, but tends to use the term “activist” even in private conversation. Journalists also face a threat from the security services and political groups. In 2011, Hyder’s colleague at Geo, Wali Khan Babur, was shot dead by activists from the MQM.

“For crime reporters, life is calculated,” Hyder said, as we drove to dinner in Clifton. It was evening and the city was cloaked in humid darkness. Hyder’s mood was morose; a contrast to his usual pronouncements about how lucky he is. Hyder’s parents don’t like his job. Neither does his wife, who works in a bank and cares for their two young daughters, aged one and three.

“I cannot move anywhere easily,” he said. “I don’t often sit with friends, I don’t go to parties. I have to be very careful.”

A few months ago, when he took his three-year-old daughter to register at school, the head teacher recognised him. “I don’t want to receive threats or cause problems for other children,” she said. She would admit his daughter if he agreed to one condition: never to collect or drop her himself. Hyder had no choice but to agree. Increasingly, old friends are slipping away, afraid to be seen with him in public. “I used to play cricket, but now, people don’t want to play with me. If I try to get a friend to go shopping, he’ll refuse – not outright, but they’ll make excuses: ‘I’m busy today.’ It is very painful.”

The police and gangsters to whom he often refers as his “very best friends” are a poor substitute. “That’s just for work,” he said. “It’s part of life and a part of the job. If you’re not friends with any gangsters, how is it possible to get criminal news? If you don’t have friends in the police, who will disclose anything to you? True friendship is a different thing.”

He was silent for some time, the background chorus of honking horns and traffic noises filling the gap. “I don’t trust anyone.”

* * *

One morning I woke up to a WhatsApp message from Hyder asking how I was. A few minutes later, my phone buzzed again. I opened the message to find multiple pictures of corpses, close-ups of the bloodied faces of five bearded men, staring blankly into the camera lens. “Police encounter on TTP militants in Sohrab Goth last night,” he typed. A few minutes later, he sent through some cheerful selfies of himself in his new office.

A few weeks earlier, Hyder had quit his job at Geo after 11 years, frustrated by diving ratings and long delays in salary payments. These difficulties began when Geo faced off against Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency after a senior presenter named Hamid Mir was shot. Geo alleged that the attack was ordered from within the ISI. The agency fiercely denied this claim.

I will fight the war on terrorists, against criminals. I’m happy to die, because it is good work

Shoaib Sheikh

Geo’s changing fortunes were a sharp reminder that freedom of speech in Pakistan only goes so far. Like many others, Hyder was tempted to join a new network, called Bol TV. It offered handsome salary packages and plush offices, with an on-site barber and gym. There was serious money behind it, although no one I asked seemed to know exactly where it came from. Vans, auto-rickshaws, and billboards all over Karachi proclaimed it: “Pakistan’s imminent number one media enterprise.”

Hyder’s new channel was not yet on air, and its launch date kept being pushed further and further back. During the day, he was at the Bol office, building up a team – cameramen, junior reporters, and drivers – and assembling an archive of stock footage of politicians and key public institutions. But he continued to spend his nights circling the streets in his car, waiting for phone calls from police. A small matter like not having a working channel to air his findings did not stop him covering his beat. “I have to keep up my contacts, I’m always the first,” he said when we met that evening. I asked if he had missed reporting since leaving Geo a fortnight earlier. He nodded, his frustration visible. “Oh, very much.”

* * *

The current anti-crime initiative seems to be working. According to official statistics, at least, the city-wide murder rate is significantly reduced. (970 murders were reported in the first half of 2015, 57% less than in the same period in 2014.) Of course, this does not include the hundreds of people shot dead by the security forces. Police justify these illegal killings by saying that Karachi is in a state of war and that any deaths are an unfortunate result of armed clashes. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an NGO, has brought several cases against senior officers.

Hyder has a complex relationship with the police. In 2011, he reported on a bungled search operation in the north-western district of Orangi Town, in which innocent people were arrested. Police demanded that Hyder hold the story. When he refused, he was badly beaten by officers. (The camera was still running and footage of the assault was broadcast on Geo.) Hyder and his cameraman were detained for seven hours. Nonetheless, he was affronted when I suggested that police might sometimes kill the wrong people. “If police are involved in wrong things, I report it, but above 90% of encounters are genuine,” he said.

Late one cloudy, starless night, I accompanied Hyder to meet a police contact in Sohrab Goth, the “no-go zone” where he was shot in 2012, and the frontline of Karachi law enforcement’s battle with religious militants. As we left the city centre, the lights went out: Pakistan’s energy crisis means that only affluent areas have constant electricity.

When we pulled up at the police station, the entrance was cut off by an assault course of sandbags and cement blocks. We parked and walked through a side gate and into a small, badly paved courtyard, past a cell with a stained floor where three prisoners squatted.

In a back room with cracked paint and visible wiring, station house officer Shoaib Shaikh sat on a bed, chain-smoking. He was a large unsmiling man in his 40s, with a bushy moustache and huge bags under his eyes. Shaikh has shot dead scores of militants in Karachi, including some TTP leaders, earning him the nickname Shoaib Shooter. In February 2014, a case was registered against him for killing a student leader in an encounter. He was briefly suspended, but the case was dropped and he returned to work.

He showed us a picture on his phone of a TTS leader, and I asked if this was someone he had arrested. “Arrested, and killed,” said Shaikh.

KARACHI: Mobile phone snatching incidents increased in the outgoing year of 2015 as compared to the previous year despite the Rangers-led targeted operation, though it helped in curbing major crimes in the metropolis.

“In the year 2014, around 29,000 cases of mobile phones theft or snatching were reported while the number increased to 32,000 during this year,” said Zubair Habib, the newly appointed chief of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), in his first interaction with the media at Governor House on Thursday after assuming charge.

Mr Habib said the operation helped in bringing down the number of major crimes significantly.

Corroborating his statement with figures, he said the reported cases of four-wheelers theft and snatching at gunpoint decreased from last year’s 2,757 to 1542 during the current year, indicating nearly a 50 per cent drop. He said kidnap for ransom cases decreased from 110 in 2014 to only 21 so far this year, while targeted killing incidents in the city dropped to 618 during the current year from around 1,500 recorded last year.

Since 2011, he said, the CPLC had handled a total of 3,563 extortion cases. However, he did not share this year’s data about extortion cases with the media.

“Such a significant reduction in crimes reflected better performance of the Karachi operation,” the CPLC chief said, adding that it was perhaps for this reason that people supported the Rangers-led operation.

Crime pattern

Mr Habib said the CPLC due to its extensive crime database had the capability to assess emerging patterns of crimes. The facility could help the law-enforcement agencies in busting gangs of kidnappers, robbers, extortionists and vehicle thieves.

Citing a couple of street crime patterns, the CPLC chief said criminals mostly started street crimes from 1pm to 2pm and the peak time was 11pm. About car theft, he said white colour vehicles appeared to be their favourite as they could easily be disguised.The availability of comprehensive reports using latest software tools being developed continuously at the CPLC for the stakeholders had also helped the agencies in taking proactive measures and take effective actions to curb crime in Karachi, he added.

Mr Habib said rising crime and malpractices in certain departments compelled the CPLC to prepare a database of jail inmates. He said the committee developed a database of prisoners in Karachi Central and Landhi jails. He said biometrics and digital photos available with the CPLC would help in identifying the hardcore criminals and those committing crimes under fictitious name. The committee would conduct such an exercise in other prisons of the province next year, he added.

He claimed that the CPLC had played a pivotal role in ensuring that no innocent person or suspect was kept under illegal detention without the registration of an FIR by police. He said the CPLC had indigenously developed facial sketching software that was available at all CPLC offices. More than 1,500 sketches were made every year with the help of the software, he said, adding that quite a few notorious criminals / terrorists had been apprehended by law-enforcement agencies through the use of these sketches.

Coordination with Rangers, Nadra

In reply to a question, he said that the CPLC was working in close coordination with the Rangers also. “We work in coordination with the Rangers and several cases were being jointly handled by the CPLC and Rangers,” he said.

Mr Habib said that Rangers director general Maj Gen Bilal Akbar had recently visited the CPLC office followed by a visit of 14 trainee officials of the paramilitary force to their office. “There is no controversy between the Rangers and CPLC, our goal is same and we work jointly,” he added.

“If any misunderstanding existed in the past, you won’t find its traces now,” believed Mr Habib.

He said the CPLC in collaboration with the Edhi Foundation and Chippa, Karachi had initiated a project called “Identification of Unknown Dead Bodies.” He said unidentified dead bodies were being identified through the biometric scan technology by utilising the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) record. The CPLC had established a special desk at the Edhi morgue for this purpose, while a similar set-up was being established at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, he said. The cooperation being extended by Nadra in this regard was exemplary, he added.

Mr Habib said the CPLC also established ‘Neighbourhood Care’ centres in at least half a dozen areas of the metropolis where crimes had been reduced up to 90pc and they planned to set up more such centres.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2015

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