Karachi’s Chronic Insecurity
24 June 2014

This post was originally published in Foreign Policy as Karachi’s Killers, and is part of a project funded by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.


KCR Footbridge in Nazimabad, Karachi, Pakistan, 2014.

On Sunday, June 8, militants brazenly attacked Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, and managed to control it for several hours. By the time the Pakistani military was able to end the battle, at least 38 people, including the attackers, had been killed.

While the attack has done little material damage to the port city, it inflicted a serious moral wound. It exposed the weakness of Pakistan’s security and revealed the ease with which armed men can brutally disrupt the lives of the country’s citizens — not that Karachi’s residents need to be reminded that the state’s hold on the safety of their streets and homes is extremely tenuous. They have endured this kind of dramatic political violence for years — from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on the city’s streets in 2007 to the bombing of a Shia religious march in 2009 to the 2011 attack on the Mehran naval base outside of Islamabad.

Spectacular terror attacks conducted in the city make great headlines, but Karachi suffered over 3,200 violent killings in 2013 — over 10,600 in the last four years — many of which were not categorized as terrorism. In 2013, roughly 1,000 killings were targeted attacks against non-political individuals, according to the Express Tribune, which maintains a record of urban violence in Karachi — although the categories used by the police to denote motives can be imprecise. Other violent incidents were a mix of gang warfare, criminal attacks, sectarian violence, explosions, and killings by law enforcement.

There is also a more mundane but insidious kind of insecurity in Karachi that influences the routes local residents take to work, the people with whom they associate, the languages they speak, the neighborhoods they do or don’t visit, and how they travel and move throughout their city. This threat is framed by the absence of a serious, consistent civic presence on Karachi’s streets — the most visible aspect of which is incompetent, corrupt, or simply absent police.

I spent most of March 2014 walking the streets, alleys, and derelict train tracks of Karachi, photographing the remnants of the defunct Karachi Circular Railway for a project about the city’s urban development (pictured above is a photograph I took of trash fires along the Chanesar Halt railway). Karachi, with a population of roughly 20 million, is one of the few megacities in the world with no mass transit. It once had trams, built by the British, as well as a commuter railway that was constructed in the 1960s as part of an ambitious push to use modernist architecture and transport infrastructure in the building of a modern nation-state. Its collapse in 1999 symbolized the failure of that effort.

Fifteen years on, the Pakistani state retains a flimsy hold on the functions of modern statehood — from taxation to transport, from urban development to policing, from education to health. In each case where the state fails to provide basic services, citizens, communities, political parties, and mafias step in to take over.

In my travels around the city, for example, I witnessed drivers avoiding intersections known for the venality and corruption of the Traffic Police, who control the flow of vehicles, and watched cops pull over lines of buses and cars to extract a daily toll. Friends in Karachi have been attacked or robbed, but are loathe to report the crimes for fear of the bureaucratic malaise and attendant financial transactions that grease the movement of most civic functions in Pakistan. There are streets and even highways where thievery is especially well-known, such as a stretch of road near Karachi’s port that runs between a slum called Machar Colony and the infamous, gang-run neighborhood of Lyari. It is normal in Karachi for residents to have two phones: the cheap one they keep in view for thieves to swipe, and the good one hidden away in their pockets or bags.

The insecurity these residents feel is exacerbated by the informal security that does exist, controlled by political parties and their attendant paramilitary gangs. These neighborhoods may be safe if you have the right heritage, religion, or patronage network, but are dangerous for others.

The city’s northwestern neighborhoods, Orangi or Baldia, for instance, are composed largely of new, informal housing originally set up by communities squatting on land. These neighborhoods are often adopted by political parties, who then facilitate access to utilities and security in exchange for votes. Once reasonably secure, at least for locals, these particular neighborhoods have become strongholds for ethnic Pashtuns, a subset of which are Taliban supporters. The vicious murder of Parween Rehman in March 2013, the director of the Orangi Pilot Project, a widely-respected urban development charity, marked this shift for many local residents who no longer feel safe visiting the community.

Some neighborhoods manage their security with informal watches. Others use gates, walls, and private security firms. Additionally, many Karachi residents have walls within their minds that demarcate safety zones. These divisions are influenced by class, ethnicity, language, religion, and gender. Those lines, of course, are hardly clear and difficult to draw on a map. They vary by individual risk level, and are calibrated by street, time of day, and choice of transport.

And yet, as in all places, personal security remains a form of triage. Local knowledge, personal awareness, and understanding the nature of threats means it is possible to safely navigate through the city, as millions do every day.

For three weeks, I walked on Karachi’s streets for some five hours per day, through many different neighborhoods, through empty fields and playgrounds, past agricultural lands, industrial estates, and parks, and never experienced a single threat. This was in part because I was lucky, and because I was also unexpected — neither known, nor a target, nor a threat. The same is not true for residents, who must navigate their security daily, following routines, conducting business, playing and living. They deserve a life free of terror and the drama that comes with spectacles such as last Sunday’s attack.

They also deserve a city with the basic functions of civic life — safe streets, good transport, water, electricity, housing and education. This is a longer and less glamorous struggle, and for many, it is the security question that defines all others.