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Ordinary crimes in terrible times

Updated Jun 24, 2013 02:06pm


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-Photo by Eefa Khalid/
-Photo by Eefa Khalid/
Summer nights are tricky times in Karachi. The threat of load shedding hangs over work-wearied heads and sweaty bodies. The long shadows suggest new hiding places for the city’s many secrets. Before many go to sleep, they lock their doors and bolt their windows. Often they get up and check them again, that kitchen window, that back door. The robbers in the house next door came through the back door; it requires a second look, say the lingering doubts of the security deprived.

These are the rituals of those unfortunate people who have more than just enough — a few pieces of jewelry they would like to keep, a car or two, a television, perhaps a laptop. They do not, however, have enough to take away the threat they face from those who have nothing at all. They do not have the cash to hire armed guards or the crude courage of arming themselves with the weapons that would insure their security. They lock their doors, they squirm at sounds, and they pray. That is the sum total of their arsenal against the evils of the city, against the uncertainties of a Karachi night.

It was the story of just such a family that was the subject of a letter to the editor published in Dawn last week. It related to the murder of five people nearly one year ago. The author, Zaitoon Umer, told of how her mother’s killer knew just how she did this ritual of locking doors every night before she went to sleep, sometimes even waking up in the middle of the night to do it all over again. Her killer did not come in the middle of the night, but in the wide, seemingly less sinister hours of the day. A disgruntled driver, peeved at his old boss, he walked in easily and killed her, her husband, her son, her daughter in law, and her granddaughter. In his own words, he killed the young girl last; she was the only one who had tried to flee. He took their cellphones and the bits and pieces of jewelry he could find around the house.

The killer of the Bawany family confessed. He was imprisoned and his confession recorded. All of it an astounding amount of proof in a system unused to preserving clues of catastrophe. Despite this, there has been no resolution in the case. The murder of five people in a respectable neighborhood in a dangerous city caught the voyeuristic attention of a watching public for a bit, but not long enough to insure that the captured killer was punished. In the distorted logic of the vastly suffering, the fact that there was a killer, and that he had been apprehended, was perhaps judged to be solace enough for the grieving family. At the courts, the case drags on as newer murders pile up, also awaiting justice. The petition to transfer from the crammed dockets of the Karachi City Court to the ATC Court was rejected on ground that the case “did not raise enough terror in society.”

This calibration of terror has consequences for the nightly rituals of those that still lock their doors. In a Karachi where entire buildings are blown up by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and five or 10 people are shot down for being Shia, or belonging to this political party or that, what is the remaining status of crimes that are simply, plainly acts of evil? Terror and ethnic war belittles the suffering of the ordinary. In the case of the Bawany murders, the gruesome, senseless killings of not one or two but five of a family is demoted to just the usual kind of crime, dictated by the normal cruelty of a grudge-bearing servant, preying on the vulnerabilities of the only superficially secure

It is, however, just the very ordinary of terrors that strike closest to the fretting hearts of those that must endure life in a terror stricken city. The outcome of the conflicts that afflict Karachi and Pakistan lies in these truths. When those who lock their doors, when those who hope to safeguard the little bit they have, go to sleep at night, they fear not the marauding hordes of this or that militant group, but the unstopped evils of those around them. Terror infects and curses and afflicts, not by suggesting that the militant hordes will bomb you on your way to work, but by gnawing at your faith in the locked door and the bolted window, brashly exposing that it means nothing at all, and that the very ordinary criminal can walk into your house and hack off your head and fear no one at all.

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (19) Closed

TAM Jun 21, 2013 03:07pm

Well, that's Karachi and it is sad to note what is happening there. It needs to be condemned.

Here in UK, summers bring in similar fears of petty to grievous bodily harm thefts. The Asian families of Indian and Pakistani origin, in particular, are generally targeted with known knowledge that gold jewelry and cash is stashed away in large quantities in their homes. Recent cases of burglars of eastern European and Somali origins are on the increase.

Whereas in Pakistan, if a burglar is found then rest assured he could be beaten up to pulp whereas a burglar caught red handed in UK can put the house owner at risk of being unnecessarily manhandled or beaten up in self defence.

Such is the limit of do-gooders helping crimes these days.

aaa Jun 21, 2013 05:38pm

All one can say is its all very sad.

Syeda Jafri Jun 21, 2013 06:23pm

We live in a dangerous society with a constant fear. A society can not be run with injustice...

kenan Jun 21, 2013 06:25pm

masha allah your thinking is very good .... may allah success u ...

pathanoo Jun 21, 2013 08:32pm

Oh!! What a living HELL the "Land of the Pak" has become. Jinnah is turning in his grave and wishing he could undo it all. And, God is shedding tears.

Syed Nazim Jun 21, 2013 09:13pm

A very sad story. This is partly result of complete break down of law and order in Karachi. These conditions easily encourage people to commit heinous crimes without fear of consequences. I am sure some mafia is on the back of driver which did not allow case to be transferred to Terrorist Court and obstructing speedy trial. There was great hope from Judiciary to reform courts at lover level so that justice is delivered to poor without delay. Back logs in court continues as usual. There is no transparency in courts working. Government should force courts to publish list of pending cases in different courts every six months. Courts should also be accountable to some body.

Iqbal Jun 22, 2013 12:47am

Brilliant piece of writing, right there. I only have one question: an excellent article written on the subject of ordinary crimes almost becoming the norm.... Now what? If nobody heeds, do we stop here? Wait for the next best piece to somehow make us feel better by reading and knowing that others feel the same way?

Or do we put our selves in the line of fire and raise a voice against it? Actually step outside and do something about it? But everyone from my parents to relatives get scared to death only even when I passionately speak of the willingness required to sacrifice more than just time and effort to bring about a meaningful change in the society. They all ask me to keep my head down and mind my own business. Don't go looking for trouble. I'll only end up dead before managing anything worthwhile. I am sure a vast majority of the readers, even if they don't like to admit, think in a similar fashion.

In a nutshell? We are still fooling ourselves that by keeping our heads down, we'll be safe. A very persistent illusion. Therefore, things need to get much worse leaving us beyond any choice to move us to do something about it I guess. I'm no cynic but I can't think of any other way. Help me out.

Mike Jun 22, 2013 10:04am

@TAM,let me ask you,do you feel safe in going to Mosques in London? I do every time I go there in UK.I live in US but I can go worship in any mosque and not having to worry about any Target Killers on the loose,or someone Blowing up Mosques like in Pakistan. Maybe you need to move to LYARI in Karachi for a will feel safer there.

Dixit Jun 22, 2013 10:08am

Start giving importance to education as you give your religion. You will definitely see the change very soon.

Brig (Retd.) Waheed Uz Zaman Tariq Jun 22, 2013 10:21am

The system of police, justice, punishment and accountability has crumbled. The nation is left at the mercy of circumstances. This happens in a metropolitan city if Karachi. All it needs is intelligence, better coordination between agencies and a courageous, honest and effective police. The courts must be unbiased and candid to make correct and timely decisions. The jails should be converted to corrective institutions. All that needs a government; which means an effective system. Where is government, public representatives and establishment.

Lalajeee Jun 22, 2013 10:58am

@TAM: After staying in Saudi Arabia for 15 years, I moved back to Pakistan and just within weeks three dacoits with guns came into our house. The ordeal lasted for three hours. That was the end of my courage to raise my children in my beloved country Pakistan. I therefore decided to move and i have since been living in the United States. I feel sorry for all my beloved Pakistanis who have to undergo such suffering.


Syed Afzal Ali Jun 22, 2013 01:29pm

Is there any body from our leaders, our government personnels or from our society to talk and act to stop these cruelities, Is there any body who can put some practical efforts. We should be together without any political or religious or ethinic thought. we should be together as a humenbeing. I must say please for the sake of God take some corrective measures before some thing come to us as a punishment form Allah.

TAM Jun 22, 2013 03:15pm

@Mike: Read my post again and see what relevance your answer has to it. Nothing.

Like most, you jump into conclusion and spew out unrelated junk. Grow up, will you.

Agha Ata Jun 22, 2013 06:36pm

@Brig (Retd.) Waheed Uz Zaman Tariq: Most of all we need education for masses which is not possible because of huge defense budget.

El Cid Jun 22, 2013 07:13pm

What seems to be the problem? Did you not all vote for more of the same? Now enjoy the fruits of your secular liberal vote.

You could also try my other repeated advice in these pages. Treat others with courtesy, equity, with justice. Be fair. Be kind. Always be polite. Speak softly. As the Glorious Qur'an commands.

Carry a side arm. Make yourself proficient, able to use it with precision, even in the dark, without sighting. Do the same for your family. It is the highest form of love, if you dare. And sleep well, walk proud, stand tall. Be fearless and feel safe for the rest of your life.

Mandatory if you are indeed Muslim.

Edmond Jun 22, 2013 07:36pm


Hi Mike,

It seems living in USA hasn't had much benefit to your intelligence or your mindset. Read TAM's post again. It seemingly talks about home burglaries.

By the way what makes you think or assume TAM is a Muslim or why should he be going to the mosque? Keep your Islamic sentiments to yourself. And lastly, TAM might not be a Pakistani by origin and why are you slanderously putting him to test by sending him to Lyari to teach him a lesson.

Parvez Jun 23, 2013 01:49am

Pakistan is like a fish that rots from the head down..................cut off the head and things will dramatically improve.............but who will cut off the head ??

Vikki, Pul Bangash, Dilli Jun 23, 2013 08:17pm

@Brig (Retd.) Waheed Uz Zaman Tariq: Not on circumstances, Sir, only on Allah.....

Ali Jun 24, 2013 05:37am

@Parvez: Do Pakistanis have a head?