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<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

A body lies in an Edhi ambulance outside a hospital.

Riding Shotgun With Karachi's Bullet-Dodgers

Not even the cops will venture across all the violent divisions between enemies in Pakistan’s blood-soaked megacity. Only the guys driving the make-shift ambulances do that. No gloves, either. One night in Karachi.

It’s usually towards the end of a 12-hour nightshift that Azizullah’s job driving a Karachi ambulance becomes its most grim.

As the dawn light creeps over this city of at least 18 million people, it gradually lifts a shroud off roadsides, graveyards and garbage-strewn lots across town — the places where bodies are found almost every day. They’re young men, usually, their bodies showing signs of torture, with bullets in their torsos and heads. Many come stuffed in burlap sacks. Many are never identified.

Even by the standards of a country well acquainted with violence, Pakistan’s biggest city and financial hub is exceedingly dangerous, and getting worse. More than 1,800 people were killed here last year, and 2012 looks to be even more deadly.

The causes of the violence are bafflingly complex. In part, it’s turf wars between political parties and the criminal gangs often linked to them, who control neighbourhoods and allegedly run scams ranging from extortion to drugs and illegal land sales. In part, it’s due to animosity between religious groups, the victims falling to militias bent on killing members of rival Muslim sects. It’s also ethnically driven, since all of the city’s big parties tend to draw strength from different communities. There’s regular street crime, too.

And then, of course, there’s the Taliban, who periodically attack targets in the city and raise money through robbery, kidnapping and shakedowns.

In Karachi, whatever your religion, ethnicity or party affiliation, someone wants to kill you for it. The police are understaffed, corrupt, and infiltrated both by political parties and militant outfits. The courts don’t work. Much of the city has no power or water and even the parts of town that are on the grid regularly lose electricity supply for much of the day.

Karachi, which produces about 25 per cent of the country’s economic output, has few government ambulances. Instead, the burden of dealing with this mess falls on the world’s largest fleet of charity ambulances, and drivers like Azizullah.

It doesn’t matter your religion, ethnicity or party affiliation. In Karachi, someone out there wants to kill you for it.

Azizullah, who has just one name, estimates his age between 40 and 42 years old. For the past nine years, he has been driving for the Edhi Foundation, a non-profit organisation that runs 1,200 ambulances nationwide, 300 of which patrol Karachi — making it the largest of the city’s charity fleet. In reality, the ambulances are little more than beat-up minivans with sirens.

“This job is okay. I get by somehow,” Azizullah says of his salary of 8,500 rupees, or about AUD85 a month. “I guess this is my lot in life.”

Edhi drivers know only the most rudimentary first aid, and the ambulances carry next to no medical equipment apart from some oxygen tanks. Most cases Azizullah deals with are road accidents, he says. “And after that it’s party workers. Gunshots.”

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Edhi ambulance driver Azizullah, at the Civil Hospital Karachi morgue.

The Global Mail meets Azizullah in the early hours of the morning at one of Edhi’s ambulance stations, a cramped shopfront that houses offices and a call-dispatch centre. Out the front of the building is a cradle in which women can leave unwanted babies, no questions asked.

About an hour after dawn, the first major call comes through: a shooting in the upscale Javed Bahria neighbourhood. Azizullah jumps into the ambulance and tears over a bypass, by the city’s port, and past the slowly rousing city.

It turns out today’s call is a little different to the usual. Outside a two-storey bungalow, dozens of police and paramilitary officers are milling on the road. We’re told that behind the house’s high fence are the bodies of three members of a kidnapping gang, shot dead by police several hours earlier. The kidnapping victim is Malik Zainul Abideen, a wealthy 80-year-old petrol trader. Abideen had been seized two months ago, explains Ahmed Chinoy, who heads the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee in Sindh province, and is standing outside, red-eyed from the night’s work. The dead men can’t be interrogated, but Chinoy says they had likely kidnapped Zainul Abideen to raise money for a militant group, perhaps the Taliban.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Edhi driver Azizullah, on a call to pick up the bodies of the three suspected kidnappers.

Just as the ambulance services have been formed to answer a dire need, the CPLC is a citizen-led outfit that has sprung up to fill the void left by Pakistan’s weak state. Chinoy, whose day job is as a businessman, oversees an organisation that assists the families of the more than 100 people kidnapped in Karachi every year. The CPLC remains behind the scenes, advising relatives as they negotiate with kidnappers for ransom, while quietly tracing and analysing communications and coordinating with police.

In Abideen’s case, negotiations had broken down. The kidnappers initially asked for 200 million rupees (AUD2 million), and then dropped it to 40 million, but the family would not agree to pay. During the impasse, the CPLC picked up a lead on the kidnappers’ whereabouts, and early this morning, the police had gone in, guns drawn.

The bodies are inside, but as a media scrum forms it becomes apparent that events must follow a script before the corpses can be removed. Chinoy leads the pack to a car where Abideen, bearded and toothless, is waiting. Two months after he was snatched on his way home from the mosque, and despite having been confined and subjected to beatings, he’s surprisingly willing to talk.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Ambulance crews remove the body of a suspected kidnapper shot dead by police.

“Why would they kidnap me?” he asks, by way of response to a local reporter’s question. “Because they wanted money. Only money.”

Abideen is bustled back into the car, and police open up the gates to the home. Inside are the remnants of the morning’s raid: bullet holes, the bodies of the three kidnappers, and a clumpy pool of congealed blood. As journalists collect images of the carnage for Pakistan’s graphic TV news, police show off bottles of alcohol that they say belonged to the kidnappers. After a couple of minutes, Azizullah and other drivers move in to pick up the bodies barehanded and haul them to the morgue.

This turns out to be an ordeal. The first hospital, Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, flat out refuses to take the bodies. The drivers are forced to wait outside the morgue’s locked gates in the gathering heat while another place is found. The vans carrying the bodies don’t have air conditioning, so the rear doors are left open.

Finally, word comes through that Civil Hospital Karachi will accept the kidnappers. But at that morgue Azizullah finds that the bodies of two young men found dumped on the roadside earlier this morning are already occupying the slabs. They are unidentified, but by the manner of their death it’s assumed that they belonged to a political party, a gang, or both. The men’s arms and hands show markings consistent with torture before death, which was delivered on the roadside via multiple gunshots to the head. Both men were shot at close range, directly through each of their eyes.

Out the front of the building, is a cradle in which women can leave unwanted babies, no questions asked.

It’s only after helping move these men away that Azizullah and his colleagues can deposit the bodies they’re carrying.

In fast-growing Karachi, corruption is all-pervasive and politics is inextricably tied up with brutal militia violence.

Before the Muslim state of Pakistan was partitioned from British India in 1947, Karachi was a sleepy port town of fewer than half a million people, and with a significant Hindu middle class. In the bloodshed of partition, the Hindus left. They were replaced by a massive surge of Muhajirs Muslims who had fled newly independent India. For decades, the Muhajirs were marginalised in local politics. Then, in the 1980s, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, or MQM, burst onto the political scene as a party for the migrants. This triggered a pattern of violence as its armed workers entered into battle with established political interests, while — critics allege — engaging in myriad illegal money-making activities.

The MQM has since come to dominate much of the city — but not all of it. Waves of migrants from different parts of the country continue to enter the city, and the main ethnic groups tend to have their own loyalties to parties that control armed fiefs in Karachi. For Pashtuns, many from Pakistan’s volatile tribal areas, it’s the Awami National Party, or ANP. For Baloch from the country’s remote west it’s the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, of the late Benazir Bhutto. The PPP leads the national government.

“Every political party has militant groups,” explains Faisal Edhi, of the ambulance service. “Without militant groups, you can’t be in Karachi, you have to get out.”

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

Karachi is Pakistan’s biggest city, with a population of over 18 million. The city accounts for more than 25 per cent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product.

Faisal’s father, Abdul Sattar Edhi, set up his first clinic in 1951, after arriving in Karachi as a migrant from India. In addition to the ambulance services it runs throughout Pakistan, the Edhi Foundation also runs orphanages, aged care homes, women’s shelters and drug rehabilitation services. In Karachi, although other charity ambulance services have a presence, none has the profile or level of public adoration enjoyed by Edhi.

Faisal Edhi is scathing about the situation in Pakistan. The Edhi Foundation’s success, in his view, lies in the failure of successive Pakistani governments, both military and civilian.

“It’s a responsibility of the state, but the state is not fulfilling its responsibility. That’s why there’s a vacuum we have to work [in]. If the state will start working, we’ll have to find another job.”

Statistics show that the incremental rise in killings coincided with Pakistan’s return to civilian government in 2008 after the rule of Pervez Musharraf, says Ali K. Chishti, a local investigative journalist. Political and gang violence account for much of the increase, but the ensuing chaos has provided a fertile opportunity for extremist militants to consolidate their position, make money and carry out attacks, he says. Karachi’s port is the main source of supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan, which are trucked in from here to their destination; levying protection money on the truck routes has become a major earner for militants.

The Edhi Foundation is one of the few neutral parties able to move unhindered through this virtual war zone. When the American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in 2002 and decapitated, it was the foundation that collected his body from outside of Karachi.

Back at the dispatch station, pictures hang on the wall of four drivers killed in the line of duty. Azizullah says he is often punched and slapped by enraged party workers when he arrives to pick up the bodies of their dead comrades. He once had nine bullets pumped into his ambulance while on a call to Lyari Town, a violent slum largely controlled by PPP-aligned gangsters battling with the MQM, where police have tried, and failed, to enter by force.

<p>Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail</p>

Aubrey Belford/The Global Mail

An Edhi ambulance on Karachi’s streets shortly before dawn.

But given how violent Karachi is, Faisal Edhi believes that his ambulances get off lightly. They are almost always respected by militants, he says.

No party in this tangled conflict will accept blame for the lawless state of the city, least of all the MQM, which runs a large part of the city.

Entering the heart of MQM territory means crossing ever-increasing layers of security until you reach the eerily neat and uncrowded neighbourhood of the party’s headquarters, known as Nine Zero. MQM territory is often plastered with posters bearing the face of its leader, Altaf Hussain, who lives in self-exile in London. At one checkpoint, The Global Mail had to leave behind a police guard who had been providing protection in the city. The MQM has learned from bitter experience of killings, arrests and raids not to trust the police or the military.

Inside, Faisal Subzwari, an MQM minister in the Sindh provincial government, says talk of political violence has been overblown and that the MQM has been a victim of the violence, rather than the aggressor.

“The violence of Karachi has plenty of dimensions. It has been political, yes, but most of the time it’s ethnic. It is carried out by the criminals,” he says.

When the American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by Al Qaeda in 2002 and decapitated, it was the foundation that collected his body from outside of Karachi.

“The party, MQM, had been subject to violence, always at the receiving end,” Subwari says, repeating that this is usually motivated by ethnic animosities. “There are several sore points where violence starts, is triggered, and it engulfs the entire neighbourhood. Yes, it is a reality that in those particular neighbourhoods there must be sympathisers with MQM, yet they have to react to the violence which is imposed on them.”

The MQM is not involved in any crimes, Subzwari says. Although, he adds that in cases where party workers have been caught squeezing residents for money, they have been disciplined.

On the other side of the divide, the rhetoric is much the same.

Uzair Baloch, the man widely seen as the Don of Lyari Town, is accused of masterminding murders and drug running, and of operating torture cells in his territory. Via his leadership of the banned Peoples’ Aman Committee, he is also a partisan of the PPP and a bitter rival of the MQM.

In a telephone interview with The Global Mail, Baloch, who is currently a fugitive from police, also denies involvement in anything criminal, instead casting himself as a defender against MQM attempts to take over the slum by force, and ultimately dominate the entire city.

“Karachi does have a mafia, and the biggest mafia is the MQM. The killings and violence are under the supervision of the MQM,” he says.

Analysts say Karachi’s violence can only subside if its political parties reach a power-sharing agreement.

AROUND 9 AM, as Karachi’s heat rises, as the traffic slows to molasses and the city’s electricity grid begins its inevitable shudder of rolling blackouts, Azizullah heads home. He eats with his wife and four children, sleeps, bathes, puts on a change of clothes and, by evening, is ready to begin a new shift. He reaches the dispatch centre as the day’s toll is tallied: twelve dead.

After handling countless bodies, Azizullah says he has no nightmares. But he sees no particular nobility in his job and would take another good offer if it were to come his way.

“I’d like to have a company job,” he says. “Driving.”

6 comments on this story
by Barry North

I had a few days in Karachi in 1973 it is the only place I have seen dead bodies in the street. They were people who lived on the sts but were naked because as soon as they died they were robbed. Not a pretty sight.

November 24, 2012 @ 12:40pm
by Benjamin Gilmour

Great story. In my book about paramedics featuring Pakistan's emergency services, I write extensively about the founder of Karachi's ambulance services, Abdul Sattar Edhi. Meeting and spending time with him I will never forget.

November 24, 2012 @ 8:48pm
by Lesley Ann Porter

This is an incredible story of ordinary people working amongst such violence.

November 25, 2012 @ 6:14pm
Show previous 3 comments
by K.Matthys

The human spirit stripped bare: greed, stupidity and the mental disease called religion.

November 28, 2012 @ 7:39am
by paul sullivan

18 million divided by 18 hundred =10,000.
in other words people in karachi have a 1 in 10,000 chance of being killed each year.
chicago has 2,700,000 people and last year had 250 homicides or a one in 10,800 chance of being killed.
amazing stats that sort of make this story portraying karachi as a place where your shot the minute you get off the plane seem a bit lame.
and chicago does not have religious based killings.
go figure.

December 4, 2012 @ 11:49am
by peter hall

What a mess Pakistan is in and the government seem powerless to do anything about it. Until they stop supporting the Taliban and begin taking the lead their country will continue to be the basket case that it is. You certainly wouldn't go there for a holiday that's for sure which is usually a test for a country and those who run it.

January 23, 2014 @ 10:37am
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