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Ordinary crimes in terrible times

Updated June 21, 2013

-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.