Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Decades before blood-curdling episodes of suicide bombings and ‘target killings’ became an uneasy norm in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, a wave of terror cut across the widespread and chaotic metropolis that carried with it almost exactly the same sense of fear and dread as does the vicious criminal madness in the city today.

Though Karachi was never a very peaceful and serene city, before the mid and late 1980s its crime rates were not even half of what they are today.

Between 1985 and 1987 an enigmatic phenomenon that saw an alleged group of terrorists randomly bludgeoning homeless people with a heavy hammer, was at least one symptom of the city’s crime graph suddenly going north; a trajectory that would keep slithering upwards after the late 1980s.

One of the most prominent reasons given by analysts behind the sharp increase in crime (and also political violence) in Karachi from the mid-1980s onwards is the eruption of ethnic tensions and violence between the city’s Mohajir (Urdu-speaking) majority and the city’s Pashtun community.

The sudden influx of Afghan refugees that began to pour into Karachi during the height of the Afghan Civil War put the city’s economic resources under tremendous stress, triggering ethnic tensions and fissures.


Apparently, the city of lights has a history of blood and gore


Among the Afghan refugees were also clandestine clusters and mafias dealing in guns and drugs. Soon Karachi was awash with these. For example, till 1979 there were just two reported cases of heroin addiction in Karachi (admitted at the city’s Jinnah Hospital). By 1986, however, Pakistan suddenly had the second largest population of heroin addicts (after the US), with Karachi holding the largest number.

The regime of General Ziaul Haq that had been at the helm of power ever since July 1977, initially had no clue (or maybe even any interest) in how to stem this sudden outbreak of ethnic violence, rising crime and drug addiction in Karachi.

Amidst the ethnic turmoil and rioting and the rapidly rising episodes of muggings, robberies, drug peddling, land-grabbing and monetary scams, emerged the so-called ‘Hathora Group.’

The name was actually coined by newspaper reporters who first began to investigate the early spate of murders committed by mysterious men with hammers.

In 1985 police in Karachi was alarmed by an increasing number of murders committed in a similar manner. Though the murders took place in different areas of the city, all of them included street urchins and beggars (as victims) who were killed by a single hard blow of a hammer to their heads.

In late 1985 when the total number of such murders rose to seven, the police theorised that the killings were being done by a single person (a serial killer).

The single person theory then evolved into becoming a suspected group of killers after a victim survived the blow. A beggar sleeping on a footpath of Karachi’s Burns Road claimed that that he went to sleep at about 2am but was woken up by the sound of a car, screeching.

He said before he could fully awake himself, he saw at least four men in white clothes and black masks approaching him. One of them hit him on the head with a heavy hammer and he passed out, almost bleeding to death.

When newspapers reported the beggar’s story, the supposed group began to be known as the ‘Hathora Group’ by the police and the press.

The killings subsided for a while but came back in mid-1986 to haunt those who spent their nights on the footpaths of the ‘City of Lights.’

A sociologist while speaking on the phenomena some years later suggested that the sudden burst of ethnic violence and spike in crime in the city sent Karachi spiralling towards the kind of abrupt chaos that can be easily manipulated to meet various nefarious criminal and political goals.

He believed that the killings were entirely planned to spread fear in a city that had become disoriented by the swift rise in political violence and crime. But planned by whom?

Some Urdu newspapers alluded that the group was actually made up of members of the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, and Afghan agents (KHAD), who were striking back due to Pakistan’s logistical and political support to the Afghan insurgents fighting the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.

Some scribes suggested that the mysterious killings were the handiwork of the reactionary Zia dictatorship to spread fear and/or distract the media’s attention away from the ethnic turmoil and rising episodes of crime that had engulfed Karachi.

One English magazine even wondered if the group was actually made up of members of some satanic cult. It spoke about how some groups residing in Karachi had become exceedingly rich overnight (after smuggling drugs into the US and Europe) and had formed ‘secret clubs.’

The reporter related how he once saw one such group indulging in ‘curious rituals’, dressed in long white cloaks at a deserted beach in Karachi in ‘the dead of the night.’

He did not mention if they were also carrying any hammers, though.

Another newspaper spoke of the Hathora Group as being some kind of a ‘death squad’ formed to rid the streets of drug addicts, beggars, runaway children and homeless men. The paper did not mention who it thought may have formed such a squad.

For almost two years the city of Karachi remained in awe of the phenomenon and fearful of the rumours that the group was now planning to enter people’s homes with their killing hammers. That never happened.

The last known case attributed to the group was reported in May 1986. No arrests were ever made. The mystery of the Hathora group remains unsolved to this day.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 26th, 2015

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