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Pakistan: Karachi horror stories

by Irfan Husain, 23 November 2013

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WHEN we read about Hakeemullah Mehsud’s death by drone, some accounts of his final moments mentioned that he was at the gate of his lavish mansion in North Waziristan.

Nobody speculated on how this house was paid for, but my guess would be that the money came from Karachi: over the years, the city has become a giant ATM for the Taliban. Instead of plastic cards, however, these terrorists use Kalashnikovs.

To be fair, several political parties protect criminals who have also fastened their hooks into the city like ticks sucking an animal’s blood. The result of this free-for-all is a traumatised population living in constant fear.

Hardly anybody I know in Karachi has gone untouched by the daily violence and crime that wrack the city. People use routine evasive measures to try and lessen their risk when they step out of their doors. But all too often, criminals break into houses with impunity. Life and property are at constant risk.

Many keep two wallets and two mobile phones when they leave their homes. One (less valuable) set is to offer gunmen when being mugged. I, too, usually leave my credit cards at home: there have been many horror stories about people being driven from one ATM to the next, pulling out as much cash as possible at gunpoint.

And when it’s not the constant danger of a random hold-up at gunpoint, it’s the regular payment of bhatta, or protection money, so many businessmen are forced to pay. How pervasive this has become became evident when I stopped to buy flowers the other evening from my local florist.

This is a tiny operation run from a wooden platform on a street corner, so it can hardly be considered a target for gangsters. Nevertheless, the owner said he was forced to pay Rs100 a day. And the nearby shopkeepers were regularly shaken down too.

At the other end of the criminal spectrum, I was told of the kidnapping of a highly successful Karachi industrialist recently. He and his driver were stopped on their way back from his factory in the evening by gunmen, forced into a pickup, and driven blindfolded for a few miles. They were kept there for a couple of days before the driver was released at a distance from the hideout.

The industrialist — who doesn’t want to be identified for obvious reasons — was then forced into a sack and driven for three days and nights. He describes most of his journey as being over smooth roads, with stretches of unpaved surfaces.

The vehicle was not stopped at the many checkpoints close to the border, but when he emerged from the sack, he was on Afghan territory.

The kidnap victim was kept chained and blindfolded most of the time for over a month; every now and then, he was casually beaten by passing guards.

After weeks of this treatment, his captors negotiated his ransom. Again, he is reluctant to disclose the amount, although it ran into several crores, or tens of millions.

He was then forced into a vehicle and driven far away before being made to walk several miles. Here, his captors called the Karachi number he gave them so he could tell his wife the amount she needed to raise, and the details of the drop-off.

After the call, the mobile phone was destroyed. Significantly, the only thing these kidnappers — who he was sure were members of the Taliban — seemed to fear were American drones.

After the money was paid, the businessman was taken back to Karachi the same way he had been driven to Afghanistan. Again, the vehicle went unchallenged. He was dropped at a remote place outside the city from where he made his way home.

Clearly, the Taliban see the value of returning their victims once the ransom has been paid.

In view of Karachi’s rising tide of violent crime, I recently asked a very senior police officer of the Sindh government if he had any cure for this plague. He said the crisis could be resolved if three conditions were met.

Firstly, the political interference had to stop. Officers were transferred on whim: if one annoyed a politician, or if some favourite wanted a job, police officials were moved around, irrespective of merit or experience.

While registering a case in a police station a few years ago, I noticed that the board carrying names and tenures of officers in charge showed that several incumbents had been transferred within three months of taking over.

Next, around 5,000 policemen had been recruited over the last few years either because of their political connections, or because they had paid bribes. Most of these recruits were incompetent, but because of service rules, they couldn’t be thrown out without lengthy administrative proceedings.

Finally, and most importantly, the police needed the judiciary’s support in fighting crime. Currently, many criminals were either given bail or released on flimsy grounds. Hundreds had been rearrested for other crimes. Cases took years to reach a conclusion. Witnesses were either too frightened to come forward, or were reluctant to be called to testify again and again as hearings were repeatedly postponed literally for years on end.

Given these handicaps the police are being forced to work under, it is easy to see why crime is so out of control in Karachi. While our police force is widely seen as ineffective, we need to understand the underlying reasons for its impotence in tackling the city’s crime wave. Morale and training are issues that need to be improved urgently. When I look at the living and working conditions of our supposed guardians, I can hardly blame them for their poor performance and corruption.

Ultimately, we get the policing we are willing to pay for. Above all, our politicians and our judges will have to cooperate, and support our police if we want a safer city.

irfan.husain at


The above article from Dawn is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use