History makes victim of Karachi

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 March, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 March, 1995, 12:00am

WHEN two American diplomats were killed here last Wednesday, an Australian reporter in Islamabad phoned his mother to tell her he was not going to Karachi. When I decided to come here I resolved not to phone mine.

I knew that millions go about their business each day without being shot. I also knew that even when bullets are flying, your chances of being hit by one are still low, depending of course on the number of bullets in flight and whether one happens to be aimed at you. So I came to Karachi.

I consulted my Lonely Planet guidebook. 'I came close to being abducted on one of Karachi's main streets by a man claiming to be a member of the police, but managed to run away despite the risk of being shot,' writes the author. 'There have been explosions and sporadic incidents of gunfire in the streets . . . Riots and strikes are also commonplace. No part of town visited by foreigners is immune.' My guidebook was printed in April 1993.

Who is to blame? What would Karachi be like today if any of several recent Pakistani governments had been more attentive to its obvious problems? Or if the Mohajir Quami Movement, whose political aims in broad outline seem reasonable enough, had thrown up a leader akin to, say, Aung San Suu Kyi, rather than Altaf Hussain, a man one close observer describes as 'almost Hitlerian'? Or if the 1947 partition of the sub-continent had not sent millions of Indian Muslims here in hope and panic? Or if the Bangladesh war of 1971 and the Afghan war had not swelled the city even further? Thus a place like Karachi is a victim of sheer history as much as anything, and the complexity of its present plight reflects all the past wars and crises that have contributed to it.

On Monday night I was given a five rupee note with bloodstains on it. Yesterday, I was given several 10 rupee notes also stained with blood. I will pass all these notes at the first opportunity and I hope I don't see any more like them.

'What is your country?' is a question often heard in the sub-continent. 'England,' I said yesterday when the well-dressed man asked.

'Do you know about Karachi's situation?' he said with evident concern.

'Yes, thank you,' I said.

'Yet you are so confident,' he observed.

I came clean on my real nationality.

'You should never tell anyone here that you are from America,' he advised.

Ordinary Karachiites, he said, blame America, India and 'the Jews' for the unrelenting shootings and mosque bombings. I asked what solution he saw. 'Some kind of revolution,' he said halfheartedly. 'Some kind of new government. Perhaps.' 'A new national government?' I asked. ' 'Yes,' he said. 'But then we will have to watch what that new government does.'