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In Karachi, a Call for Calm Amid Deadly Ethnic Violence

August 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Violence has never been a stranger to the people of Karachi, Pakistan's commercial center. However, as fighting has worsened in recent months, some citizens are trying to stem the tide. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on an appeal for calm in a city divided by ethnic violence.
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RAY SUAREZ: Violence has never been a stranger to the people of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial center. But as violence has intensified in recent months, some citizens are trying to stem the tide.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has a report. A version of Fred’s story can be seen on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.”

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Modern-day Karachi has been defined by migration.

In 1947, at independence, when the British partitioned India, millions of Indian Muslims flocked to the city. So did people from other provinces of the new Pakistan, like Punjab and the northwest along the Afghan border, and migration from that troubled region skyrocketed after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and after 9/11.

Today, Karachi’s neighborhoods, its politics, and much of its strife happen along ethnic lines.

In recent weeks, hundreds of people have been killed in ethnic clashes in this mega-city of some 16 million.

ARIF HASAN, architect: I think almost all of Karachi’s issues are related to the conflict in Afghanistan.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Architect and prominent social researcher Arif Hasan says divisiveness set in the late ’70s. That’s when Pakistan’s military ruler introduced strict Islamic conservatism. It intensified as Pakistan, with U.S. support, closely allied with the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation

ARIF HASAN: And it was from this city that that war was fought.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Today, the rival political parties are largely ethnic, and there’s little consensus on how to share power to govern a divided city.

Frequently, one faction or another will call a strike, declaring its own curfew to shut down the city. These turf battles have exacted a huge toll on the economy, says Hasan.

ARIF HASAN: Every time you have a strike or the city closes down, at least half-a-million households don’t have any earnings on that day because they are day wage earners.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Amid the deadly chaos, one of the loudest voices appealing for calm has been that of an energetic 84-year-old named Abdul Sattar Edhi. He called a recent news conference in the city’s press club.

ABDUL SATTAR EDHI, Edhi Foundation (through translator): I’ve been asking people one question. We’ve been Muslims for 1,400 years. Why don’t we become human beings? Why have we lost touch with our humanity?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Edhi moved to Karachi from western India soon after Pakistan’s creation, 62 years ago. He began an ambulance service in the 1950s, trying to serve a city that was growing rapidly. It now has the largest fleet in the city, mostly simple vans with stretcher, lights and siren.

Partly because the country has few services, the Edhi Foundation has grown into one of the largest social service agencies. Edhi, who had little formal education, boasts that his entire $10 million-plus annual budget comes from ordinary Pakistanis, abroad and at home.

To demonstrate, he stood on a busy Karachi street for about 15 minutes. Dozens of passersby thrust money in his hands. The donations help fund food relief in neighborhoods that have been under siege for days during the fighting.

Rumana Husain has written a new book about her native city.

RUMANA HUSAIN, “Karachiwala: A Subcontinent Within a City”: I don’t know where we would have been if Edhi wasn’t around, really.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In what sense do you mean that?

RUMANA HUSAIN: In every sense, because he seems to be everywhere. He’s like — you know, even if an animal gets hurt, and if there is a — there’s a donkey lying somewhere or a crow fallen from a tree, it seems that it is Edhi volunteers who pick them up.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: She says, across Pakistan, the name Edhi holds a special place.

RUMANA HUSAIN: It is awe and respect, not just him, but also for his wife, Bilquis Edhi, because they have worked hand in hand.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Bilquis Edhi oversees facilities that house about 9,000, women in shelters, children in orphanages, schools and this nursery for abandoned infants, most of them severely handicapped.

Bilquis Edhi began working as a nurse for the fledgling Edhi organization more than four decades ago. She accepted Edhi’s marriage proposal, even though he was more than 20 years her senior. She says she admired his dedication to service. His flowing beard wasn’t a look she favored, she adds, but it was a symbol of his devout religious practice.

Today, Pakistan is far more conservative and beards are common, but, in most cases, a false symbol of piety, she says.

BILQUIS EDHI, Edhi Foundation (through translator): People had beards because they were practicing. Today there’s less practice, but more beards. It is this high number of narrow-minded people that have created all of the trouble we have in our country.

ABDUL SATTAR EDHI (through translator): When there is poverty, illiteracy, when people don’t get their rights that gives rise to organizations like the Taliban, and other such groups were formed, and it just spreads from that.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: On Karachi’s streets, Edhi says, there’s growing despair. These men pleaded with him to help them get more police protection in their neighborhood. It is encounters like these that Edhi says prompted him to ask the country’s top military leader, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to send soldiers in to restore law and order.

ABDUL SATTAR EDHI (through translator): Mr. Kayani, I am appealing to you. Where have you been sleeping?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: His call surprised journalists at the crowded news conference.

MAN (through translator): Do you want a dictator to come in, like Musharraf?

ABDUL SATTAR EDHI (through translator): Brother, if for the time being you have to say salaam to somebody, there’s no harm. If a civil revolution comes in, there will be anarchy and millions will die. What is needed for three to six months is, somebody should come and control the situation.

MAN (through translator): Are you inviting martial law?

ABDUL SATTAR EDHI (through translator): Brother, tell me if there’s a different road.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, others say Pakistan has already been on that martial law road. Until 2008, this country was ruled mostly by military men.

And Ayesha Tammy Haq, a lawyer and talk show host, says most people are not ready to abandon its fledgling democracy.

AYESHA TAMMY HAQ, attorney: We don’t want those people to come back and run this country. The military is responsible for a lot.

They have run and controlled Pakistan for so long. The Afghan policy is theirs. Foreign policy is theirs. Everything is the military’s. And so therefore we need to allow these terrible civilians who are so corrupt and so dreadful, we have to allow them a little time to get it together and to change the way things are done in Pakistan.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It will be up to civil society to hold politicians accountable, she says, much as it did during the rule of General Pervez Musharraf.

Civic groups led by lawyers fought successfully to restore judges Musharraf had dismissed, eventually forcing the general himself out in 2008. For his part, Abdul Sattar Edhi says he can only hope that change comes with a minimum of violence. For now, the demand for his services has never been higher.

RAY SUAREZ: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota.