November 6, 2013

Anonymous said: Hey Shaheryar, how are you? Listen, would you be interested in writing freelance pieces for a local magazine, PIQUE? Whats your email. best, Salman.

let me know shaheryar.mirza@gmail.com

June 26, 2012

Anonymous said: Does your job have potential for investigative journalism - i.e does the paper support taking a long time to follow a particular story, or is it more of a fast in fast out?

Well they say they do and you are given time to do longer more in-depth stories but the trouble is that you still have to file other stories regularly so it kind of renders that exercise rather futile. We have a dedicated investigative reporter who can take time. Depends on your pitch and whether your editor agrees, and trusts, to give you the time. Still have to be productive while you’re working on a longer story though.

June 11, 2012
Review of Vice Guide to Karachi and Interview with Founder


“If you’ve never been to Karachi, you’ve never been killed,” says an Edhi ambulance driver whose job it is to patrol the city to pick up after its violence. The unnamed ambulance driver delivered this cynical yet apt line to Suroosh Alvi, founder of Vice Magazine, whose forty minute documentary attempts to show a side of the city that flies under the radar of the mainstream media in the west.

When watching any of the Vice Guides to Travel one should be aware that the language is not sanitized, the format is free from television’s stifling constraints, the opinions flow freely throughout and those are all good reasons to watch their guide to Karachi instead of the six o’clock news.

Alvi whose magazine is based out of New York City, has filmed in at least eight different countries which are known for their volatile nature, says that Karachi is totally unique.

“It’s an enigma of a city. When I went to the dump in Jam Chakro and saw the scavengers, I have never seen anything like it. The only thing close, which I don’t think was as bad, was the Congo,” says Alvi who was speaking over the phone from the US after completing the film. “It was an emotional rollercoaster.”

Alvi is seen often throughout the film commenting on the scenarios he is reporting on along with fellow filmmaker Basim Usmani. The film introduces its major subjects in an almost Tarantino-esque manner.

Uzair Baloch as Public Enemy No. 1, Hamza Khan of the ANP as Number One Son , Faisal Sabzwari of the MQM as the Zealot, Nabil Gabol as the politician, Chaudry Aslam as the Bad Lieutenant and finally, The Target Killer.

The filmmakers go on different operations in Lyari and Orangi Town that are meant to wipe out criminals out but as is often witnessed on local television they aren’t exactly Navy SEALS operations.

“It was ridiculous and shocking to see, what a farce it was,” says Alvi incredulously of a police raid in Orangi Town meant to be targeting members of the Taliban and a raid in Lyari going after Uzair Baloch, “we got to catch the absurdity of it all.”

Alvi said that in some ways Karachi compared to parts of Jamaica and said he rode along on a similar operation there, but said the only difference was that in Jamaica they actually caught their target, whereas in Lyari Uzair was sitting comfortably in his home.

One of the more interesting parts of the film that will appeal to a local viewership and seemed to scoop the local media is that during an operation in Lyari, Alvi and his colleagues managed to get an interview with Uzair and Zafar Baloch, the Baloch Brothers as they called them in the film, inside their palatial home in the heart of Lyari’s slum. The film gives a small tour of his “Scarface-like” abode; an empty indoor swimming pool, gaudy fountains and ponds and flashy furniture throughout. All topped off with Uzair Baloch’s characteristically defiant rhetoric.

The gem of the film comes in its last segment where Alvi managed to interview a target killer. “It was intense and didn’t really know what to think.” During the interview the killer, fittingly speaking from under a motorcycle helmet, confesses to killing 30-35 people and says he got into the business because of unemployment and can’t sleep at night because of it. The million dollar question that goes missing in the conversation was who the killer works for. The miss is forgivable because questions like that can get a journalist into trouble but tellingly the killer does admit that 80% of killings were political and 20% were mafia related.

Muttahida Qaumi Movement MPA Faisal Sabzwari and PPP MNA Nabil Gabol come off as pure politicians in the film who don’t stray for one moment from the party line.

“Most people we spoke with were honest and I love filming in Pakistan because you can get access high up very quickly. The politicians spoke as if they had their agenda and they stuck to those.”

Alvi admitted to being tense at many points in filming even though a lot of the film takes on an almost satirical tone which may turn some people off but is also one the film’s best qualites. For all the violence and turmoil that this city goes through, as a journalist you discover that a lot of it is at times staged and carried out by harmless people and rented protesters. On the other hand, there is an underbelly of danger around every corner which is not easily captured on camera and Vice does a good job of capturing both of these scenarios.

“It’s a city of contradictions and a city of extremes. It’s like you have a bunch of disenfranchised people living on one side of the bridge and the 1 percent live on the other. What’s to stop those people from coming over onto the other side of the bridge?”

Alvi says they don’t do grand geopolitical analysis but do give an unpolished truth in a creative and different form. The one contradiction in the project is that Vice claims to show a side of a city that the mainstream media misses, but the film features mostly on violence, which is what most of the mainstream media is guilty of. But that is also what makes Karachi, and the film, intriguing.

Shorter version published in The Express Tribune on June 11, 2012 click here

March 26, 2012
Mr. President, Bring Down this Wall

Chain smoking cigarettes staring at Bilawal House across the street, Siddique says, “I used to work with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto,” pulling a photograph out of his drawer of himself with the late Pakistan People’s Party Leader, “now this wall built by the PPP government has ruined my business.”

Siddique, a state agent, says he has lost about ninety-percent of his customer base over the last couple of years, since barricades and containers blocked off Khayaban-e-Saadi eventually leading to the construction of a permanent wall on the space. “Nobody wants to come to this area anymore and cars don’t stop here anymore. I have to actually chase people down to get clients.”

Bilawal House, named after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s grandson and now currently occupied intermittently by President Asif Ali Zardari is located in Clifton Block 3 and has been designated officially as a Presidency. When the President is in town this is where meetings are held, smack in the middle of a residential area and parallel to what used to be one of Clifton’s liveliest commercial areas.

When Siddique looks at the empty road in front of his store he reminisces about the time when the area used to be packed late into the night brimming with outdoor seating for restaurants, “now this road has become so empty that it would make sense to just park cars here and open an automobile business!”

Barrister Naimur Rahman says, “this wall is completely illegal because you cannot block a road in front of public housing without due cause. It is not just obstructing a public highway it is in fact completely blocking it.” Barrister Rehman says the matter can easily brought to court if someone pursues it, but that would mean taking on the ruling party.

The commercial facing Bilawal House used to have a service lane catering solely to the businesses and routes leading towards apartment buildings and homes in Clifton Block 2. Now the portion of Khayaban-e-Saadi that leads down to Marine Promenade by the sea has been blocked off and is solely for official use. This means that the other side of the road that leads to Bilawal Chowrangi has been transformed into a double road, converting a service lane into a full-fledged road.

“Now it is a main double road so all the traffic is fast-track traffic and we don’t get the walk-ins we used to before. Most of the people who patron the businesses here now are residents of the area,” says Noor Abrejo a real estate agent with a business in the area.

“Business is going down day by day and along with that property values have been dropping as well,” says Abrejo.

According to Abrejo’s calculations the property in this area used to go for about twenty to twenty-six thousand rupees per square foot and after barriers were brought in to the area, it has devalued by ten to fifteen percent.

Another real estate agent in the area, Mohammad Bashir echoes Abrejo’s claims saying there were about a thousand shops in the area and only a small fraction of those remain open today.

Bashir says if someone owns a flat in the area worth seven million rupees, they will be lucky if they get rid of it for four million now. He says rental rates have remained stagnant or have dropped in the area despite a rise throughout the rest of Clifton and Defence. “They used to charge .05 % of the full value of a property, now it has dropped to around .02%,” Bashir said.

Bashir’s own business has declined to such an extent that he says that only about fifteen percent of his customer base remains and that his situation is no different from other businesses in the area. A stroll through this area on any weekday reveals a few ‘open’ signs hung on doors surrounded en masse by drawn metal shutters.

“A cloth market was even opening up, but the merchants left once this situation started developing. When someone asks for my advice I tell them honestly that there is no point opening a business here anymore,” says Bashir. He added that he has been trying to sell his business for four months, but hasn’t been able to find someone to take it off his hands.

Bashir and Abrejo both see one upside to the situation as Bashir laughs and says, “there is little to no street crime in the area because of the constant police presence in the area.”

The shopkeepers in the area are burdened by the heavy losses they suffer on a daily basis and add that when there is VIP movement in the area and the president is in town, it becomes even worse.

All of the entry and exit routes become sealed by containers and trucks or tankers, leaving either Ziauddin Hospital Road route open, or the Marine Promenade which is already choked by oil tankers that have flouted a Supreme Court order to vacate the area. Oil tankers have now started parking on Ziauddin Hospital Road.

“Who would want to live here now anyway? Any time there is VIP movement in the area guards are sent into people’s buildings and they are sitting on top of your head on your roof,” said an area resident who does not want to be named. The resident went on to say that they are advised not to sit out on the balconies of their own homes that face Bilawal House because it poses a security risk.

It is not just residents in the area who are facing difficulties, but there are many schools in the area as well.

Taiyaba Malik, owner and principal of a small school in the area moved her school to this area from near the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi over a year ago and invested in a bigger property because her business was expanding and needed to increase her space to accommodate enrollment.

“Parents are constantly complaining about the situation, especially when the President is in town because all the routes get blocked and parents are left driving around in circles trying to find a way to reach the school,” says Malik.

Paying three hundred thousand rupees a month for the school, Malik says she is losing over two hundred thousand of that because some students have left the school and new students aren’t joining because the area doesn’t have the appeal it used to.

“The reason I moved here was because it had such an excellent record of a place for doing business. This may have been made safer for the president but we don’t feel any safer. After the blast in Phase 8 we all worry that we are located next to another man who has a lot of enemies.”

Malik says that she is not ready to close down her school because she has invested too much into the venture but says she is looking forward to the day that this is no longer the presidency.

Real estate agents in the area estimate that about eighty percent of the bungalows that are situated on the same side as Bilawal House have been bought up by the government, but there is no official figure to back the number of homes purchased or who the buyer is.

Abdul Sami Khan of the Clifton Residents Association says, “many homes have been sold on the Clifton Block 3 side where Bilawal House is. What other choice are people going to have? If friends come to visit, their cars are constantly checked by security.” Khan added that a year ago residents approached the City District Government Karachi and the Chief Minister Sindh but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

A resident of Block 3 who has sold his home but wishes not to be named says, “yes I sold my home and have nothing to grumble about as far as the price of the home is concerned. What was worse was that the entrance to the masjid over there has become completely blocked.”

The District South authorities have washed their hands of any responsibility for the building of the wall on Khyaban-e-Saadi saying that they are not the responsible authorities and they don’t know who is responsible for the building the wall.

Sharmila Faruqi, advisor to the Chief Minister of Sindh says that the wall has caused inconveniences for the people of the area but, “people should be thankful for the wall because it is extra security and it’s for free.” She added that she inaugurated a new business in the area and reiterated that businesses continue to open and close in the area. She advised that if it is causing too much inconvenience to residents and business owners, they can take the matter to the courts.

Amber AliBhai from the NGO Shehri says, “is anyone going to bother the Supreme Court to take a suo moto notice on this illegal wall when it won’t be implemented? Nothing will be done about this until the people take pick-axes and tear it down themselves.”

Residents and business owners in the area are not optimistic about business taking a turn for the better and traffic jams because choked routes have made it tough for residents to happily call this area home.

People in the area feel that as long as this government is in power they have no choice but to sit and wait.

Mohammad Bashir defiantly takes dramatic license when comparing the situation to that in East Germany, “The day the government changes we can bring down this wall. But if the Berlin wall can fall, then so can this one.”

*Siddique is a pseudonym

Edited version published in The Express Tribune on March 26, 2012

March 17, 2012
Extortion in Karachi

The Special Investigative Unit’s newly formed Anti-Extortion Cell (AEC) has produced two arrests fresh off the heels of widespread condemnation of a rise in extortion resulting in a shutter down strike throughout Karachi by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

The AEC only came into being a little over a week ago and in that time it has received fifteen complaints, and according to DSP Wasif Qureshi who is heading the unit, the suspects are involved in eight of the complaints they have received.

“These are the guys who go to the traders and extort money from them but we are confident that we can go up the chain as well,” said Qureshi speaking to the Express Tribune after a press conference at the Central Investigation Agency Center where Additional Inspector General  (AIG) Akhtar Hussain Gorchani was briefing the media on the arrests.

 “We usually wouldn’t make such a big deal out of just two arrests” said the AIG almost apologetically, “but we have to show the trader community that we are committed and sincere in our efforts to fight extortion and we want them to trust us.”

DSP Qureshi says the cell has set up a complaint number which traders can call anonymously and they can register their complaints there. After the complaint is registered the investigation is initiated and subsequent arrests help lead to arresting other members of a gang if it is connected to a larger ring of criminals.

The CPLC has in March already received 20 complaints in relation to extortion at all their centers throughout the city as compared to a total of 39 complaints in January and 21 in February this year. If the complaints continue at the same rate then March will have the highest number of complaints this year.

“We agree with statements on the rise in extortion and if you look at the numbers in March so far it is particularly alarming and most occurrences are happening in district east and south,” says Chief of Citizens-Police Liaison Committee Ahmed Chinoy.

A common grievance throughout law enforcement agencies, not just for extortion but also for crimes in general is that they aren’t reported by the victims.

“People either don’t trust the police, they feel that nothing will come of their complaint, they don’t want to go to court and face further threats but the people have to come forward otherwise we can’t possibly hold the law enforcement agencies responsible,” says Ahmed Chinoy.

President of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce Mian Abrar Ahmad says that the situation has been particularly bad recently and that the trust deficit between traders and the police is a reality.

“Traders are scared and they come to the Chamber to lodge their complaints and we take their complaints to the concerned authorities,” says Ahmad who is skeptical about the new measures taken by the government,”very little progress has been made. The new cell [AEC] hasn’t contacted us, not that I’m aware of as yet at least.”

The methods of extortion have also been altered to make it easier for criminals to threaten traders. Ahmad says that criminals are now issuing threats through SMS, as well as the traditional method to drop a parchee at the target’s place of business.

“It has become very violent. They are simply just killing people who don’t pay up, we have had two deaths because of this recently,” said Ahmad.

Chinoy agrees with that assessment and adds that, “another new method being employed is that extortionists will come and open fire on the shutters of a store while it is closed or throw a hand grenade to send a warning.”

Many of the criminals responsible for extorting money have links with political parties but a lot of criminals are independent and they falsely use the name of gang leaders and parties to scare people into giving money says a source at the SIU.

DSP Wasif Qureshi and Ahmed Chinoy both corroborate the claim that gangs use the names of parties or gangs to scare people.

“Usually someone will call up a trader and start telling them how many kids that person has, where they go to school, where there assets are in order to scare them and then they will tell them to have a certain amount of money available by a certain date,” says DSP Wasif Qureshi.

Chinoy says that the issuance of SIM cards is an issue that telecom companies and law enforcement agencies have to tackle together because the police does not always have access to phone records and  damage control is not as effective as preventing the issuance of SIM cards to criminals.

There are varying estimates of how much money is extorted from traders in Karachi on an annual basis but Chinoy says they are at best “wild guesses”.

Extortion is nothing new in Karachi but the AEC will come under increased pressure from the government to tackle it as it has become politicized over the last few days and has been taken up in the Sindh Assembly.

DSP Qureshi says the cell only has about eight to ten dedicated officers for and they don’t have any cars or police mobiles solely for the cell.

“Right now we are just using the general strength of the SIU for the cell and we don’t work alone. Other police stations, SPs and SHOs all work with us and now that the cell has formed it doesn’t mean that the rest don’t have to do their part.”

The AIG Gorchani today did announce that Rapid Response Force teams would be deployed at sensitive markets to work with the AEC and has said that they are also thinking of readjusting where Frontier Constabulary and Rangers forces will be situated in the city.

Shorter version published in The Express Tribune on March 17, 2012

January 4, 2012
Barricades on New Year’s Eve solved a few problems but caused a few too

Epaper version published in The Express Tribune on Jan. 4, 2012 here

Online version here
KARACHI: 

For the past two years, the police have been barricading parts of Clifton and Defence in an attempt to stop the revelry on New Year’s Eve from disturbing the residents of these areas. But it seems that this strategy itself has caused great inconvenience to those people it was supposed to help.

Around 30 blockades, comprising tanks and containers, were set up in DHA and Clifton this year. “These blockades are very disturbing for the residents, but we know that many of them are willing to bear with these,” said Col. Amjad, who is the director of the vigilance department of DHA. He stressed that the residents prefer these measures over other nuisances that occur during the occasion.

“We want New Year’s Eve to be an event which is enjoyable for everyone instead of just a bunch of unruly young men. Parents play a crucial role in preventing the rowdiness that occurs on the occasion,” said Clifton SP, Tariq Dharejo.

The frustration for young men, who usually spend New Year’s Eve racing, showing-off their customised vehicles and mingling with the opposite sex, was palpable this year. There have been accusations that the security measures were a part of an elitist strategy to prevent the city’s have-nots from enjoying Sea View, which is supposed to be a public amenity. These claims did not sit well with the police. “The aim and scope of our objective is to deter crime and to keep the flow of traffic moving,” said Dharejo. The law enforcers claimed that young men show up at Sea View drunk and start misbehaving with people. Their behaviour causes accidents and provokes violence.

The law enforcers’ other aim, which was to restrict aerial firing, was only partially attained.

But this cannot necessarily be attributed to the ‘outsiders’ who entered the posh locality. “Influential people still engage in firing. Many of them belong to families that are related to the government and have private as well as official guards who fire weapons. Sometimes teenagers from these families also engage in the disruptive activity,” said Dharejo.

“If you ask me, the firing this year was a lot less as compared to that in previous years. The casualty and injury count serves as evidence for this fact,” said CPLC chief, Ahmed Chinoy.

The adviser to the Home Department, Sharifuddin Memon, said: “These measures were deployed under extraordinary circumstances. We had been informed that certain places would be attacked and Sea View was the place where terrorists could have made the maximum impact.”

The threat from terrorism and a generally high crime rate provides a blanket of cover for the authorities to take heavy handed measures to protect the public. “The fact is that people who were genuinely trying to celebrate New Year’s Eve were suffering because of the measures,” said Chinoy. “The [law enforcement] agencies have to preempt all the possible unsavory incidents which can occur on occasions like these.”

Unlike other people in the city, the residents of Defence and Clifton enjoy easy access to the beach front. New Year’s Eve used to be a night where many the residents of Karachi could share this privilege and celebrate together.

Heavy-handed measures by the police of the area are a temporary solution to extraordinary circumstances. But these may also lead to a greater division and greater resentment in an already fractious city.

January 4, 2012
Political meetings: Afaq Ahmed starts building allies

Epaper version published in The Express Tribune on Jan. 3, 2012 here

Online version here

KARACHI: A few weeks after the release of Mohajir Qaumi Movement-Haqiqi (MQM-H) leader Afaq Ahmed, Kamran Rizvi, who was part of the MQM-H (Amir Khan) has rejoined Afaq’s faction of the party and meetings between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) rivals are underway.

Former central secretary information for Amir Khan’s Haqiqi faction Rizvi said at the Karachi Press Club, “We were weak when Afaq Ahmed was in prison and that is why we joined Amir Khan’s group.” MQM-H (Afaq) claim that 40 party workers have defected along with Rizvi.

Afaq Ahmed made the rounds around the city on Monday, scheduling meetings with Ans Noorani of Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (Noorani Group) and Zafar Jhandeer of Sindh Dost Ittehad, who have traditionally been rivals of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

Afaq Ahmed and Zafar Jhandeer invited the press to Jhandeer’s Defence house to cover their meeting but after keeping the press waiting for three hours after the scheduled time, many journalists left the venue.

Zafar Jhandeer told The Express Tribune that, “A separate force is coming together in Karachi that shares a single-point agenda. Call it an agenda of de-weaponisation or an alternate strength in Karachi, but we will make an announcement soon of different parties joining hands.”

Jhandeer says the groups that share this single-point agenda include people like former Sindh home minister Zulfiqar Mirza, Awami National Party’s Shahi Syed, nationalist parties, religious parties including the Sunni Tehreek and Peoples Amn Committee leader Uzair Baloch. He added that many of the leaders of these parties were not in the city but on their return, the leaders will meet and proceed with their “single-point agenda” and make an announcement on how they will carry this plan out.

January 4, 2012
Jihadi kidnappings: As the year ends, a new trend in crime reveals itself to experts

Epaper version published in The Express Tribune on Jan. 1, 2012 here

Online version here
KARACHI: 

At least five of over a hundred kidnappings in 2011 have been committed by “jihadi” groups, according to the Citizens Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) — an increase from just one or two last year.

The links between kidnappings and jihadi groups are often exaggerated, but Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies director Amir Rana says, “After the military operations in Orakzai and South Waziristan there has been a sudden rise in groups using kidnappings as a way to gather resources for their activities.”

According to Rana, this trend has proliferated in Pakistan since 2007. The CPLC chief, Ahmed Chinoy, says it is still hard to establish which groups are responsible. “When we investigate kidnappings we can determine what kinds of gangs are involved because of the nature and location of the calls. The ransom amounts tend to be exaggerated,” said Chinoy. “They also take longer to negotiate with than regular criminal gangs.”

SP Ghulam Subhani at the Anti-Violent Crime Cell (AVCC) says ransom demands are higher “because they use the money for explosives, arms and ammunitions.” In a recent case, Subhani says, they were able to trace some of the leads to Afghanistan and managed to negotiate the initial demand of Rs10 million down to less than Rs3 million.

Profiles of the victims vary, and many tend to be small business owners. Rana points out a disturbing trend in certain parts of Pakistan. “Some groups have started targeting businessmen from minority communities.” CPLC’s Chinoy says militant groups do carry out reconnaissance on their targets but they aren’t necessarily targeting members of certain communities. “These are criminal gangs after all, jihadi or not. We treat them as such and they generally target victims, or even banks, because they can exploit a gap in security.”

The most frequent kidnappings in Karachi took place in Surjani Town, Gulshan-e-Maymar and Gadap this year. In its annual report on crime in Karachi, CPLC found that 101 of 106 cases of kidnapping have been solved and 23 gangs have been apprehended. In 2010, there were 112 kidnappings in Karachi and CPLC says all the cases were solved.

Rana assesses that since the Pakistani military has claimed successes in South Waziristan and Orakzai, “This has probably led to resources becoming closed for Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and smaller groups that affiliate themselves with the TTP and al Qaeda might be responsible for raising resources in cities across Pakistan, including Karachi.” According to Rana, the rise in these kidnappings has been quite sudden and that these groups are commonly referred to as the “Punjabi Taliban”, a claim supported by SP Subhani.

While militants may be using these resources to attack the state, CPLC chief Ahmed Chinoy says, “I don’t believe in these theories that these groups go after government-related targets, they simply go where the money is.”

The number of kidnapping cases reported in the last five years has been high, and 2010 and 2011 have had nearly the same number of cases. While there is no foolproof way to prevent being targeted, there are some ways to prepare, including varying commute routes, installing vehicle tracking systems in cars and pre-emptively identifying a negotiator in the family in case of ransom negotiations. While the number of ‘jihadi’ groups committing kidnappings has risen in Karachi, the number is still a small percentage of the total. Even though CPLC says the majority of the cases have been solved, it rings alarm bells because it hints that while the military may experience success in militant strongholds, these successes can have a trickledown effect in one of Pakistan’s most volatile cities.

January 4, 2012
Imran Khan Wins Hearts and Minds at Rally

Epaper version published in The Express Tribune on Dec. 26, 2011 here

Online version here
KARACHI: 

When people poured into the rally early on Sunday, sections of the ground seemed to arrange themselves into little microcosms of the greater class system prevalent in the country. But as the numbers grew, the lines blurred.

What most people in the family enclosure had in common was that they had never attended a political rally before.

Some of them were overseas Pakistanis. Naqi Sharif, who is from South Africa and follows Imran Khan on Facebook, said, “We want to come out of the drawing rooms and onto the streets.” Karachi resident Anila Weldon, who runs a support group for mothers, said, “The passion itself has brought me here. I have no expectations.”

For many of these first timers Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf represents what they have been missing out on for years – someone to awaken them.

Majid Mehmood, an engineer, came from Saudi Arabia to Karachi to see his aging mother.  And to attend Imran Khan’s rally.  In the dusty ground, where the PTI rally was held, he along with his six- year-old son chanted slogans for Khan.

“I want to come back to Pakistan and work here, close to my family,” he said in a mix of English and Urdu. “I don’t know why but Imran Khan gives me hope. I want change, security and a better future for my children.”

Taliban Khan

Many came with hope.  “My friends think I’m crazy but I’ve come from Riyadh just for this rally,” said Safwat Khalid draped in a PTI flag. “Imran Khan is not a career politician. He will run the country like a company.”

Listening in on the conversation,  his friend Fouzan from Karachi chipped in “before Imran Khan, we never voted because we felt nobody deserved it.”

Common criticism against Imran Khan is that he is a ‘Taliban apologist’ and some nicknamed him ‘Taliban Khan’. But Canada-returned Uzair Dadabhoy disagreed. “I am not anti-USA but there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan or in Pakistan and Imran Khan understands that.”

Along with the young hip crowd, there were many who had been supporters of religious parties. “I am a prayer leader at a masjid,” said a man, in his late forties as he held a party banner. “I just like this man.”

There were girls in t-shirts and burkas, boys sporting Khan tattoos and others in traditional attire.

Even Chacha Cricket showed up at the rally, wearing his trademark green long shirt and holding a Pakistani flag. “Imran won us the world cup,” he said. “He built a cancer hospital for poor people. I am sure he can save the country.”

It’s all business 

Jawwad Awan, a graphic designer, was selling white t-shirts with “Kara-Che” printed over a picture of Imran Khan. “Khan and Che are both revolutionaries. One used weapons and the other is using the ballot,” he said. He said he was selling the shirts for Rs300 a piece, earning just Rs50 in profit.

Besides samosas and pastries, which were being sold by about a dozen men, Niswar and Baloch Gutka was also on offer. Nawab Khan had a small stall set up right near the entrance. “Niswar is selling well,” he said, laughing. “But there are a lot of customers for John Johnny and Raza Mawa,” he said, referring to concoction of betel nut and tobacco.

Tens of thousands of people flooded the ground as well as adjoining roads, the wall of the Quaideen flyover and rooftops of nearby buildings.

Mudassir Ahmed, 25, came with his friends. “I am an Urdu-speaking and I really don’t care if Khan is a Pashtun,” he said. “He speaks against corruption and that is the language I want to hear.”

January 4, 2012
Bill passed for women’s rights, but the fight needs momentum

Epaper version published in The Express Tribune on Dec. 24, 2011 here

Online version here

KARACHI: Although the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill was passed in the National Assembly and Senate, the fight is far from over, according to women’s rights activists, members of the provincial assemblies (MPAs) and lawyers, who spoke at a seminar on Friday.

“The failures come when it comes to the implementation of these laws,” said Muttahida Qaumi Movement MPA Zarin Majeed. “It is because of the lacking infrastructure and loopholes in our institutions.”

The seminar was titled, “Legislative Watch Programme for Women Empowerment” and was organised by the Aurat Foundation.

The resident director of the Aurat Foundation, Mahnaz Rahman, recalled her journey from the first meeting of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), during General Ziaul Haq’s time, till now. “Recently we have had so much to celebrate as women with the passing of the recent bills, because of all the seeds planted by the WAF in the ‘80s.”

Sharmila Faruqi, the adviser to the chief minister, lamented the fact that she worked on so many cases of women with no results. She cited the example of the Mukhtaran Mai case and termed the suo-motu decision of the Supreme Court as an “unfavourable verdict.”

“Many times we get convictions but the perpetrators appeal and are acquitted by the higher courts,” she said. “It makes one wonder what was the point of pursuing the cases.” But, she said that women must keep raising their voice for “nothing else but their own self-respect.”

Lawyer Haq Nawaz Talpur also touched on similar issues. “We have to ensure that perpetrators of heinous crimes don’t have the benefit of suspended sentences during appeals, which in some cases take years to conclude,” he said. “If we can classify some of the offences where the sentences aren’t suspended then it will act as an even greater deterrent.”

Talpur urged that women from rural areas have to be taken on board for any legislation on the provincial level. He stressed that words like “injustice” are still too weak for what sometimes women have to face. The rural women have to be heard, he said.

MPA Nusrat Sehar Abbasi of the Pakistan Muslim League- Functional, and Advocate Rubina Aman Brohi highlighted that woman members of different political parties unite when it comes to women’s issues.

Abbasi said that it is also important to work on the federal level. However, she added, “Three to four bills dealing with women’s issues were ready and on the table in the Sindh Assembly. But we don’t understand why they haven’t yet managed to make it to the floor.”

The laws have to be followed at the grass roots level and mindsets have to be changed for the laws to generate any change in the society. “The change must also come from the top,” stressed MPA Abbasi. Rape cases should not be politicised and the government should not intervene in the sentences, she added.

The speakers blamed outdated cultural traditions for abuse against women. They said that most of the practices were un-Islamic and that corruption within our institutions, the judiciary and police, hinder the implementation of the laws.

January 4, 2012
Imran Khan arrives with promise of historic rally

Epaper version published in The Express Tribune on Dec. 23, 2011 here

Online version here
KARACHI: 

Jinnah airport turned into a sea of red and green as Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) supporters flooded it to receive Imran Khan who declared that Sunday’s public rally would not only go ahead but would also be a “historic” one.

He said that the court had “suspended” the order to not allow PTI’s event, so it would go ahead as planned. “We will be entertaining you!” he announced to the crowd, flanked by former foreign minister and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who flew in with him on Jahangir Tareen’s private jet.

Khan is in Karachi on a four-day visit, but his primary engagement is the rally on December 25, which he promises will be even larger than the one in Lahore. In fact, he fears that “a rela (flood) of PPP leaders will be rushing to join PTI after December 25.”

With his general secretary Arif Alvi by his side, Khan claimed that the party was not a “King’s party”. “The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid) can be King’s parties but the PTI is a flood or a tsunami which comes from above.”

The rally will be an event to unite Karachi. “Until Karachi rises, Pakistan’s economy cannot improve since Karachi is a financial hub,” the PTI leader said.

Khan’s supporters – carrying flags and sporting flags as bandannas – crowded around him as he made his way out of the airport. For an hour and a half before his arrival, they had shouted slogans of ‘Prime Minister Imran Khan’, ‘Go Zardari Go’ and ‘Naara-e-Takbeer’ as the pitch built.

PTI supporter Syeda Zohra Rahat was among the hundreds at the airport. Sporting a dupatta in the green and red colours of the PTI flag, which she calls her signature, Rahat said Khan referred to her as “aapa” (elder sister).

Sadia Agha, who has been a PTI supporter since 1996, says she and other workers are “very excited” and believe the party has managed to attract people because they see Khan as a “ray of hope”.

Andaleeb, who flew in from Lahore for the event, said she has been a party worker for four years and in this time, people have grown so disenchanted with the current government that they have turned to Khan as a symbol of hope and change.

Agha isn’t demurred by the politicians from other parties joining PTI. “We have full faith in our leader. This will be a very successful event in Karachi.”

As scheduled

Earlier in the day, at a hurriedly called press conference at the Karachi Press Club, the party’s senior vice president, Hamid Khan, said that preparations for the rally and meeting were already under way at the ground across Quaid-e-Azam’s mazaar.

The PTI’s Dr Arif Alvi added that the rally would be completely peaceful and other political parties should refrain from trying to irritate the party as it prepared for the day.

The press conference was held in an attempt to clear up confusion after the Sindh High Court had disposed of a petition filed by people who wanted the permission for the rally cancelled.

For their part, the judges said they couldn’t interfere in the matter as the Mazaar-e-Quaid board had the power to make any decision according to its rules.

The PTI leaders circulated an email from the secretary of the Federal Ministry of National Heritage and Integration, Faridullah Khan, to prove that they had been granted permission. It said: “As per the permission granted by the competent authority, the PTI may hold its rally at the Quaid’s Mazaar on the 25th December 2011. The organisers will ensure compliance of all necessary rules meant for the care and sanctity and upkeep of the compound.”

January 4, 2012
Defiant Afaq hits out at MQM

Epaper version published in The Express Tribune on Dec. 21, 2011 here

Online version here
KARACHI: 

The chairman of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM-H), Afaq Ahmed, has been a free man for only three days but he already fears that he can be sent back to jail. As a result, he has come out swinging against the self-exiled leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, to try to prevent this.

“Altaf Hussain thought it was more important to keep [me] behind bars than it was to take care of his people, and Musharraf allied with the MQM for personal gain,” said Afaq at a press conference at his home in Landhi on Tuesday. “We had hoped for justice when a democratic government came to power but once again we saw the same self-serving political alliances.”

Afaq said that the same people who wanted to keep him in prison would also attempt to line up more fake cases against him, as he claimed they did while he was in jail. They want to prevent him from doing political work.

“Karachi will become like Vietnam or Rwanda if law and order and de-weaponisation is not implemented in the city,” he said. “When the state stops providing security, people take it into their own hands and it turns into the law of the jungle.”

While he said that peace and de-weaponisation was on his political agenda, he fell short of giving any concrete details of how he intended to achieve this.

The MQM-H chief stressed that the party’s basic ideology hasn’t changed and that it aims to represent and protect the Mohajir community’s interests. They don’t want a separate Mohajir province but did want “administrative units in urban Sindh to be revised”.

He mocked the MQM for what he said was using the ethnic card only when it suited it. “They first buried the word Mohajir but now they are playing politics by [riding on the word] Mohajir when it suits them,” he said referring to the feud between Zulfiqar Mirza and the MQM. The party had released a CD titled “The Genocide of Mohajirs” at the time.

Afaq said he intends to take his time and methodically rebuild the party. For starters, a visit to Mazar-e-Quaid is planned for December 23. But it seems as if Afaq has his work cut out. He will have to play catch-up in his own neighbourhood, for example, where MQM flags and Altaf Hussain graffiti adorn the walls nearly up to his doorstep. For whatever is worth, Afaq seems defiant. “I am not one to run from my problems or to run from this country when the going gets tough. I am ready to put my life on the line.”

January 4, 2012
As the need for blood outstrips supply, two brains find a fix

Epaper version originally published in the Express Tribune on Dec. 19th 2011 here
Online version here
KARACHI: 

In a city that perennially competes for the title of murder capital of the world, the demand for blood is hard to stanch. And, as with the other cities in Pakistan, such as Lahore, the same situation arises when there are intermittent outbreaks of epidemics like dengue and natural or man-made disasters.

Fortunately, two young men from Lahore were inspired by this challenge. As dengue claimed more and more victims, Talal Masood began to think. Given that there were a number of individuals and organisations working to connect blood seekers and donors, he thought why not try to unite and connect them on one platform.

He took this idea to his friend, Ahsen Masood. Months later, they launched SaveLife.pk, an internet- and SMS-based service that connects blood seekers, donors, hospitals and doctors across Pakistan.

The website advertises itself as a free service that creates a database for willing donors to sign up through an SMS or an online form. Once you are signed up as a donor you can receive a request for blood at any time for your specific blood type, and the aim of the service is to connect people who are in close proximity to one another. The website is currently functional but still a work in progress.

“You can search the database for blood type but you can also put in the city you are in and even specific areas within the city,” Talal told The Express Tribune. “We are developing location-based mobile applications that can search for donors automatically within a certain radius of your location.”

Even though the project is only a few weeks old, over 2,500 people in over 100 cities in Pakistan have already registered as donors. The project is entirely self-funded and telecom companies have been cooperating by providing SMS short codes that only cost the users a nominal fee.

“We have no plans to make money from the service right now, but if we have to start putting heaver funding into the SMS service we may have to start selling ad space on our website,” said Talal, who grew up infatuated with computers.

Savelife.pk has gotten off to a promising start but the service comes with a risk, which it acknowledges. There is no formal vetting process for the quality of the blood, the patient or the authenticity of the demand and supply. “We don’t take any responsibility for the blood being provided and it is up to the seeker to ensure that it is coming from a credible source,” Talal stressed. Indeed, there are plenty of risks out there such as drug users selling blood to fund their habit.

The fact of the matter is that these young men are stepping in where the state has stepped out. “It is the government’s responsibility to screen blood and provide it through a centralised blood bank,” said a well-known haematologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Why are they not doing anything about it?” This doctor suggests that at least seven centralised blood transfusion centres are needed in Karachi. “The safest way to do this [ensure screened blood is transfused] is not for you or me or anyone else to look into it, but for the proper authorities to deal with the matter.”

International health organisations estimate that about one per cent of Pakistanis donate blood, which explains why there is such a frantic demand.

For their part, the SaveLife.pk creators are trying their best to put in as many checks and balances as they can. They are aware that the service can be sabotaged by people looking to earn easy cash by scamming the service into providing them free blood. “We had one phone number making three different requests for three different blood types in one day,” said Talal. “We found out that the requests were for an organisation, and asked them to register accordingly. If we had found it was a scam we would block the number.”

SaveLife.pk also plans to share its database of donors with organisations providing similar services. The project’s Facebook page has highlighted some of its successes by uploading the database logs of requests for blood being met within one hour – and in another case, in one minute. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

January 4, 2012
Haqiqi Frenzy

Epaper version originally published on Dec. 18, 2011 here

Online version here

KARACHI: Instead of taking the normal route to his court hearings, Afaq Ahmed’s convoy raced out of Central Jail on Saturday to a destination he hasn’t been to in seven years: home.

The Mohajir Qaumi Movement-Haqiqi (MQM-H) chairperson was released after the Sindh High Court struck down his detention orders on Friday.

Even though his release orders came in at 2 pm, supporters only began gathering at the jail around 5 pm; hanging off buses, rickshaws, pick-ups and cars draped in a flag that is only distinguishable from Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s because it has the word “Mohajir” written in bold across it.

No visible arrangements had been made to divert traffic or to create a route for the buses in the MQM-H rally arriving at the jail. Itching to get the celebrations started, party workers stuck in traffic started waving their flags and flashing victory signs. As the sun set behind them, people stopped to watch the dramatic scenes unfold.

When former MQM-H leader Amir Khan was released earlier this year he was scuttled out of the jail’s back gate to avoid the crowds and the media. For Afaq Ahmed, people had set up camp outside both possible exits. MQM-H supporters played songs that paid tributes to the sacrifices of Mohajirs. They danced and embraced each other to the tunes of the unabashedly ethno-centric songs even though many revelling in the fun were Pashto speakers.

MQM-H vice chairperson Zafar Khan Qaimkhani was standing among the crowd. In an unexpectedly stoic manner, he said, “The party has been waiting for seven years and we will now fully resume our political activities. We will bring out our workers from our strongholds and change the face of Karachi by making it a peaceful place again.” People around the jail were surprised to hear which prisoner was about to be released, and many expressed fears for the future state of security in the city. MQM-H supporters believe that if any violence does take place, it would be by other parties trying to frame the MQM-H and prove that Ahmed should be detained.

The party is also concerned for Ahmed’s security.

Irfan, a party worker of six years, said, “Nothing has been done by the government to ensure security for Afaq Ahmed, and it has only been the courts who have delivered justice. It is Afaq himself who is responsible for his freedom now. In the past our rallies used to get better security than this, there were no Rangers present on the route.”

According to Qaimkhani, “The fatwa on Afaq Ahmed’s life was given out a long time ago. There is a serious threat to his life. If you read the Joint Investigation Team reports and the confessions of people like Ajmal Pahari and Kamran Madhuri, they have said they were tasked with murdering Ahmed.” Qaimkhani said they have been in touch with different government departments to ensure Ahmed’s security. Party supporters danced on until after sunset. As more police vehicles started to appear at the gate, the anticipation for Ahmed’s release started to peak. Party workers ordered supporters to clear a path for the convoy.

At 6 pm, with supporters neatly lined up on either side of the exit, the gates flew open and the blue and red lights formed a line inside the jail. The crowd stared into the sea of police lights and roared and chanted, “Kaun karega rehnumai, Afaq bhai, Afaq bhai” (Who will lead us, Afaq, Afaq) as police vehicles started moving. But the 20-odd police convoy sped out of sight before supporters could even figure out which car their leader was in. In a rush to catch up with the convoy, supporters haphazardly jumped onto any vehicle they assumed belonged to the rally, so they could accompany Ahmed to the graveyard in Sherpao Colony where his father is buried. Their next destination was Landhi, where they expected to hear their leader speak as a free man for the first time in seven years.

October 20, 2011

Anonymous said: Hey are you located out of Pakistan?

I live in Pakistan in Karachi.

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