VICE founder Suroosh Alvi investigates political corruption and extremism in Pakistan's ultraviolent metropolis.
Karachi Kills VICE
A Scene Report from the Most Insane City in Pakistan
By Suroosh Alvi
Photos by Jason Mojica
One of Pakistan's famous decorative buses gets hit by one of Karachi's infamous outbursts of violence. Photo by Zia Mazhar/Associated Press.
Interviewing a "target killer" in Karachi was probably the scariest thing I've done in my 17 years at VICE. His gun sat between my feet in the backseat of our car as we drove in circles around his neighborhood. After our chat about killing people for a living, I felt like vomiting for three hours. I've been around my share of guns and violence, but sitting next to someone who has murdered 35 people (for between $550 and $1,100 per head) made me feel not so good.
So who hires these people? According to the hit man I interviewed, politicians contract about 80 percent of the assassinations in the region and the other 20 percent are related to organized crime. Twenty years ago, he said, there were a total of six guys in his profession. Today, there are more than 600 active target killers operating in Karachi. Indeed, many locals speculate that the famous Raymond Davis case—in which a CIA agent took out two armed men in Lahore last year and subsequently strained US-Pakistan diplomacy—was a failed target killing, not some random kids on motorcycles trying to rob him.
On the outskirts of Karachi, children search for scraps in one of the largest garbage dumps in the world, which is next door to what is rumored to be one of the mafia's favorite hiding spots for its kidnap victims, Surjani Town.
I have visited Pakistan many times and know my way around the rest of the country, but this was my first time working in Karachi. This place is different. A sprawling, ultraviolent metropolis of 18 million people, it's one of the fastest-growing cities in the world and is probably most famous in the West as the place where Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded.
Karachi has a rich history of violence, dating back to 1947, when Pakistan rose from the ashes of the British Empire. The massive influx of Muslim refugees into the new country brought turf wars, ethnic diversity (as well as ethnic tensions and rivalries), political warfare, gang violence, sectarian killings, and, in more recent years, suicide bombings.
By some estimates, there are as many as 4 million heroin addicts in Pakistan, and in Karachi high-grade horse can be bought on the street for 80 cents a gram. Heroin and opium flow freely from Afghanistan: 160 tons went across the border in 2009, the same year a UN report put the value of Pakistan's opiate market—including trafficking and private consumption—at $1.2 billion.
When the Western media report on Pakistan, they generally focus on the "war on terror" and how awesome it's going for America and NATO. We've all heard the stories of successful US drone attacks on Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in tribal areas—and others of drones missing their targets and leveling entire villages of innocent women, children, and old people—but it seems the overall sentiment is that it's cool because they're faceless mountain people and we're winning.
After 9/11, Taliban militants scrambled over the Afghan border and into the hilly tribal areas of Pakistan. When the Americans followed, blowing them to smithereens with remote-controlled airplanes, they fled to the cities. First they infiltrated Peshawar, which they promptly destabilized with regular suicide bombings. Then they hit Karachi.
A security post overlooking the Pashtun stronghold of Kati Pahari, where rival political parties trade shots on an almost daily basis.
Getting rid of militant extremists is like trying to kill cockroaches—you stamp down on them but then they appear to the left and the right, and before you know it they're everywhere. They have been forced to duck for cover in urban centers—in Karachi's case, this means there's a new gang in town, and they're called the Taliban. Compounded with the baseline level of craziness, violence, gang wars, and poverty, this makes the city even more terrifying, especially after you meet the cops tasked with taking them on.
The police force is completely overwhelmed and consists of a rag-tag group of underpaid and undertrained guys who are basically a third-world version of the Keystone Kops. We went on an "operation" with them, alongside every TV station from Karachi, and even though we were supposedly hunting Taliban in one of Karachi's sketchiest enclaves, it felt like a film set or a scene from a low-budget version of Pakistani COPS. In fact, the situation was so absurd that our crew ended up on local media with accusations that we were CIA.
Suroosh gets some face-to-face (or face-to-helmet) time with a "target killer," who tells him the tricks of the trade.
All signs point to a country that is ready to explode, and considering the reporting I've conducted here over the past seven years, it appears that Karachi may be the detonator. It's the economic engine of the country, home to pockets of Westernized culture, a burgeoning fashion industry, tech start-ups, lots of rich people, and millions more who are suffering and destitute beyond belief. But it also contains one of the world's largest slums and the biggest garbage dump on the planet, which young children comb for food and anything of value. The stench is unbearable, with smoldering garbage for as far as the eye can see. Heroin goes for about 80 cents a gram, hash is everywhere, corruption is endemic at all levels of society, and the availability of clean water and electricity is a major issue for pretty much everybody. More people die violent deaths in cosmopolitan Karachi than in the tribal areas, where there's a "war" going on.
After spending five days surrounded by total lunacy and heavy vibes, my crew and I tried to seek out some normalcy. We just wanted to see some kids having fun—some small sign of hope. So we organized a little event with some Karachi kids active in the local art and music scene. We were going to call it VICE Kills Karachi, in the tradition of our epic "VICE Kills" events. But they suggested the inverse, Karachi Kills VICE, because "Karachi kills everything."
We said yes.
By Aziza Ahmad
Aziza is a student at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi.
After we sent this flyer out, people wrote to us asking whether we had a death wish. We replied, "Dude, that should be clear from the title of the event.
What's more punk than a flyer featuring a collage of Pakistani subculture put together using MS Paint while skipping class? How about if your flyer is laughed at (and promptly handed back) by the guy at the copy shop, frowned at by your acquaintances, and banned from the venue it's supposedly promoting?
The poster I made for the Karachi Kills VICE show received just such a response for depicting a posterior not much different from one you'd see on Cartoon Network. And it's not like sex is totally taboo in Karachi. Walk down any street and you're bound to run into a sassy hijra (tranny) who might or might not visit a dark alley with you, a ten-year-old flipping the deuces and hustling roses (who might or might not have been in a dark alley beforehand), or a burka-clad prostitute who probably isn't down with the alley (you better bring a car). Even so, this city reacted in an insane way to a poorly drawn sex act—a black squiggle away from being banned from the walls of the local cinema—but was totally OK with the Taliban fighter ringed in hearts and the flower-shooting drone inches away from him.
In the end, I wound up turning the flyer into something my mother could be proud of by covering the naughty bits with a grinning terrorist's head. Because in Karachi, that's more tolerable than VICE.
HEADBANGING IS NOT A CRIME
By Babar N. Sheikh
Babar is a filmmaker and metal expert who works in advertising in Karachi.
The cover art for Dusk's 2003 release, Jahilia.
It's a little after 10 PM in Karachi, and the few metalheads living in this mammoth metropolis meet up after work for some Chinese food, over which they discuss the new Fenriz interview and the fact that DRI has decided to tour Asia. Conversations are spiced with loads of metal trivia and the usual bitching about some guy who ripped someone off in a record trade. These guys worship the second Tormentor demo and all of Sarcófago's records.
Metal in Pakistan was stillborn. There was a brief embryonic phase in the mid- to late 90s when bands like Dusk—which I am a member of—put Pakistan on the map of international metal, and there is still a small scene of loyal metal fans. Those were the days when interviews could only be read in zines, when you would kill someone if he bent your records on the bus ride back home, when Bolt Thrower's Jo Bench was queen. But in Karachi, even though it's 2012, some of us still live in that time.
DINNER AND A MOVIE WITH A COUPLE OF KARACHI WISE GUYS
By Basim Usmani
Basim plays in Pakistani punk band The Kominas and lives in Boston.
Zafar Baloch watches one of Pakistan's many 24-hour news networks to keep tabs on the government's plan to wipe them out.
During my first dinner in Karachi, I almost sat on a Kalashnikov. Turns out Uzair and Zafar Baloch, senior members of the banned Peoples' Aman Committee and the city's most notorious gangsters, are pretty great hosts. They are dons, after all. Their living room is equipped with an empty indoor swimming pool and a gigantic flat-screen TV; the garden features an exotic fish pool and a garish fountain. It's like if Scarface's villa were transplanted to Pakistan.
While we dined with the Balochs and their crew, automatic weapons were always within arm's reach. Zafar spent much of the dinner on the phone, discussing how they got called out as gangsters on local news, while Uzair and I ate Lyari qorma off a tin plate.
Uzair Baloch proved to be a very gracious host even while waiting for the cops to storm his palatial home.
The conversation turned to New York. "Lyari is basically like the Bronx," their clean-cut spokesperson, Habib Jan, said. "I've visited the Bronx many times, and the people I know in New York are always saying, 'No, no, don't go to the Bronx.' It's been maligned." As has Karachi, though probably for more explicable reasons. I've been told by Karachiites that we probably shouldn't go rolling through Lyari at night unless we wanted to become one of many "missing persons" kidnapped by either the Taliban or one of the local gangs.
VICE needed Uzair and Zafar's protection, but in Pakistan journalists are hardly objective observers, and they wanted to know who we really were. So we showed them The VICE Guide to the Congo and The VICE Guide to Gaza on their oversize TV. These guys, the Baloch brothers quickly determined, will be protected. As they waged war on the local police, they would also ensure that we wouldn't be kidnapped and murdered. Thanks, kind gangsters!
KARACHI KILLS ITSELF
By Osama Motiwala
Osama is a 19-year-old who loves Hunter S. Thompson and took care of us in Karachi (thanks kid).
Nabil Gabol, of the Pakistan People's Party, travels with a massive private army but still always carries his own Kalashnikov.
Early in the morning on Tuesday, March 27, just hours after VICE left Karachi, two members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a liberal political party, were shot dead by gunmen who invaded their homes. Everyone knew that the city was about to get fucked... hard. The suspect was connected with the Peoples' Aman Committee, a bitter political rival of the MQM. So it looked like yet another case of "You fuck with us, we kill you!"
In Orangi Town, the suspected new hideout for the Taliban, police conduct a raid for the benefit of the media and manage to nab one bearded guy with a 9-mm.
As expected, armed men subsequently took control of the city, ritually setting fire to vehicles in the process. By sundown, dozens of cars and buses were ablaze, nine people were dead, and others had been injured, mostly in the areas where VICE had been reporting. Shops, schools, public transportation, and gas stations were shut down.
Clashes between political and ethnic groups have turned Karachi into a shithole. Around 1,700 people lost their lives last year due to the violence in the city. However, the people of Karachi possess a certain "We don't give a fuck!" mind-set. They watch the news and then whine about how bad everything is. And that's about it.